Church History II - Lesson 16

Protestant Church in England under Elizabeth

In this lesson, you will gain an in-depth understanding of the Protestant Church in England under Elizabeth I. The material explores the complex history and development of the Church during her reign, highlighting key figures, events, and theological shifts that shaped the religious landscape of England. You will learn about the Elizabethan religious settlement, the struggle between Puritanism and Anglicanism, and the impact of international relations on the Church. By the end of this lesson, you will have a comprehensive understanding of the religious, political, and social factors that defined the Protestant Church in England during this pivotal period.
Gerald Bray
Church History II
Lesson 16
Watching Now
Protestant Church in England under Elizabeth

I. Introduction

A. Overview of Elizabeth's Reign

B. Establishment of the Church of England

C. Elizabeth's Religious Policies

II. The Elizabethan Settlement

A. The Act of Supremacy

B. The Thirty-Nine Articles

C. The Book of Common Prayer

III. Puritanism and the English Church

A. Origins of Puritanism

B. Puritan Criticism of the Elizabethan Church

C. The Separatist Movement

IV. Catholicism and the English Church

A. Catholic Opposition to the Elizabethan Settlement

B. Jesuit Mission to England

C. The Gunpowder Plot

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of Elizabethan Church History

B. Significance of Elizabeth's Reign for the English Church

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  • The crusades, and John Wycliffe's challenge of the church’s authority happened before the Reformation.
  • This lesson covers the Renaissance period and the life and beliefs of Martin Luther.

  • This lesson provides a comprehensive understanding of the history of the Protestant Reformation and the theology of Martin Luther. You will gain knowledge of Luther's theological beliefs, including justification by faith alone, as well as the major events of the Reformation and the influence of the printing press on spreading Protestant ideas.
  • This lesson explores the success of the Reformation in spreading to other parts of Europe beyond Germany in the late 16th to 17th centuries. It discusses the factors that contributed to this success, including the printing press, vernacular languages, and secular ruler support. Additionally, the transcript examines the impact of different reform movements on society and culture, such as the Calvinist and Anabaptist movements.
  • You will gain insight into the spread of the Reformation across Europe and beyond, covering its origins, impact in Germany, expansion into Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and the Catholic response through the Council of Trent and establishment of the Jesuits.
  • By exploring this lesson, you will gain insights into the historical relationship between the Church and State, from early Christianity to modern times. You will also gain an understanding of the specific relationship between the Church and State in America, particularly with regard to the First Amendment. Additionally, you will learn about current debates around the separation of Church and State and how the Church should engage with political power.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about how the English Reformation was initiated by King Henry VIII's desire to annul his marriage, leading to the breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England, which went back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism until Queen Elizabeth I established it as a Protestant church.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about the life and reign of King Henry VIII and the key events and people that shaped the English Reformation, including his opposition to the Protestant Reformation, his desire for a male heir, and his establishment of the Church of England, which had far-reaching consequences for England and the Church as a whole.
  • In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of King Henry VIII's reign, including his relationships with his wives, his role as head of the English church, and his impact on the Reformation in England, as well as the political and religious agendas he pursued during his final years, and his legacy and impact on the Anglican Church.
  • The English Reformation, which took place during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, was a significant period in English history that resulted in the establishment of the Church of England and the break from the Roman Catholic Church. This class lecture explores the political, social, and religious factors that contributed to the English Reformation, as well as the theological developments that occurred during this period. It also examines the wider impact of the English Reformation on the Reformation movement in Europe and the subsequent development of Protestantism in England.
  • Gain insight into the intricate history of 16th-century Catholicism and British Protestantism, exploring key events, figures, and their impact on the religious landscape.
  • Explore the 16th-century Reformation in Europe and Britain, analyzing key figures, theological disputes, and the impact on religious landscape.
  • Gain an in-depth understanding of the Reformation in the Lowlands, its historical context, key figures, movements, and its impact on religious and political landscapes.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Reformation in Great Britain under Elizabeth I, focusing on key figures, religious struggles, and the lasting impact on modern-day Britain.
  • Explore the intricate history of the Protestant Church in England under Elizabeth I, delving into key figures, events, and theological shifts that shaped its religious landscape.
  • In this lesson, you explore the development of the Protestant Church in England under King James, gaining insight into its history, key figures, and the influence of theological movements on its growth.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain a deeper understanding of the Protestant Church in England under Cromwell, its theological developments, and the lasting impact of this period on the church's history.
  • Gain deep insights into the late 17th-century Protestant Church in England, its key events, influential religious groups, and major figures, as you explore the complex interplay of religious, political, and social forces shaping its development.
  • By analyzing the Age of Reason's influence on Church History, you gain knowledge of the interplay between faith, reason, and scientific inquiry that reshaped religious beliefs and institutions during this pivotal era.
  • Gain a thorough grasp of church history from 1500-2000, exploring key events, figures, and theological developments that have shaped Christianity's growth and evolution.

The life and thought of the Christian church from the Reformation to modern times. Designed as an orientation to the shape of the whole tradition with special focus on the history of Christian doctrine and spirituality.

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How the Church took shape in Elizabethan England

Today I want to carry on and talk about what I was talking about the other day which is the way that the church kind of took shape in Elizabethan England in the later 16th century.

Dissident Roman Catholic Church (Review)

What I talked about last time was mainly the Catholic side. How out of the various political and other things that happened during this period, a dissident Catholic Church came into being, that is to say that people who stuck to the old religion, people who became consciously followers of the pope as opposed to followers of the established church at that time. This really can be dated from the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, after which time as a mark of loyalty, it became compulsory to go to church, and those who refused to go to church, the so called recusants, including another group of people who went to church but wouldn’t take communion, they’re the sort of semi-recusants, basically they come into this category, these are the continuing Catholics, this is the beginning of an identifiable Roman Catholic Church in England… the terrible consequences that had in Ireland where the vast majority of the population became recusant at this point, and the various political problems that that caused.

Protestant Opposition

Protestant Opposition compared to Catholic Opposition

Now I haven’t talked in the same detail about the Protestant opposition, and that is what I want to talk about today. The Protestant opposition is a very different thing from the Catholic one.

The Catholic one was clearly defined; it was supported by a foreign power you might say if you think of the pope in that way; it was supported by the king of Spain and led to the Spanish Armada in 1588; it was highly politicized, not only because the Catholics were told that they had to try to assassinate the Queen, but if they had succeeded in doing so, the queen’s successor would have been Mary Queen of Scots who was a Catholic and presumably Catholicism would have been restored under her rule. That was the hope. Catholicism at this point is really very political in its orientation. It’s important to understand this, because although Catholics were put to death in the late 16th century in England, they were not put to death for religious reasons. They were put to death for political reasons.


The Protestants were not in that sense recusant. They were not an official opposition. They were rather people who on the whole remained inside the national church. They accepted the state church and the way in which things were organized in general terms. But what they wanted was further reformation, a more consistent following of Calvin, of Geneva, of the reformed tradition and way of life. They wanted to do that much more than was the case up until this particular time, than Elizabeth was prepared to accept.

As a result they came to be called by their enemies, Puritans. Puritan was a term of abuse. It appears for the first time around 1565 or 1566. It’s hard to say when it was invented but it seems to be in the vestiarian controversy over the question of clerical robes. What should a clergyman wear when he is taking services? The Puritans who went for the Geneva gown and the more academic approach – this seems to be about the time when that name was given to them. Now, because it was a term of abuse, and it never acquired any kind of official status, this makes it difficult to define precisely who or what a Puritan is. It is one of those things; you know them when you see them, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly what they are because they vary over time, what exactly they wanted at any given time might differ, and they were not necessarily all that well organized themselves. So, you get under the Puritan umbrella all sorts of different people. The important thing to remember is that what unites them is a desire for a more consistent Protestant reformation which was going to make England more like Calvin’s Geneva, without an organized party political program.

They don’t have the same clear lines of definition that you meet among the Catholics. So, it’s a different kind of animal that you are dealing with.


Technically, these people came to be called non-conformists, because they refused to conform in every respect to what was laid down officially. In other words, if the law said you must wear the priestly vestments, they went ahead and wore the Geneva gown anyhow. In other words, they were what we would call today, conscientious objectors. They just did their own thing inside the church without really asking for permission. Therefore they became a challenge to the authorities, because the authorities were faced with the option of either tolerating them or making martyrs of them by persecuting them. On the whole, generally speaking, the tendency was to tolerate them as long as they didn’t go too far, at least at this stage. The really outrageous ones might suffer some kind of penalty. The Queen didn’t really want to rock the boat too much. She was prepared to tolerate a little bit of fuss and bother on the fringe, as long as it stayed on the fringe.

Opportunity for more reformation

Now, after the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, these people saw their great opportunity, because as long as the Queen had not been excommunicated – you see one of the arguments used for her kind of compromise settlement was; well, we can keep the Catholics on board. As long as we can find a way of not alienating them too much it’s worth the sacrifice. It doesn’t really matter what you wear in the pulpit, theologically, but if it is going to keep a few traditionalists happy, let’s do that. Let’s not go out of our way to be provocative towards them. But after 1570, anybody like that was told to make up their mind, and they were told to make up their mind, not by the Queen, not by the Puritans, but by the pope, which was very convenient, because then the Puritan element said, there you are; the problem has ceased to exist, as far as we are concerned, because this other group of people, such as they are, are now clearly in opposition; they are clearly the enemy; they have been set against us one way or the other; that is quite obviously established; let’s leave it like that.

Queen refuses Puritan changes

What they did was that they proposed a series of changes to be introduced which would bring about the kind of reformation that they wanted. These changes the Queen refused, because she said; no, I’ve decided I’m going to stick with the settlement that I established in the first place. I know that we have these Catholic enemies now, but I’m not going to make things any worse or any different. We’re just going to leave things as they are.

Laws reinforcing the 1559 settlement

And so, in 1571, she had a series of laws passed reinforcing the original 1559 settlement, making one or two very small concessions toward Puritan feeling. They were two minor things that she allowed to slip through in their favor, mainly to do with things like forcing the clergy to sign a confession of faith which they never had to do before – the 39 articles of religion which were a protestant confession of faith, that sort of thing, but not really rocking the boat too much.

Admonitions to Parliament

The result was that the next year, in 1572, groups of Puritan ministers got together and wrote to the parliament. They wrote two tracts, both of which are called, “Admonitions to the parliament,” in which they set out in detail the kinds of changes that they wanted.

Freedom of prayer

What they wanted were basically things like freedom not to dress up in the pulpit, freedom to pray in their own words, so called ex-temporary prayer, because in the prayer book you had to pray according to the words of the book and you weren’t free to say your own prayers. Now this sounds strange to us today, because we are used to saying our own prayers, but you have to try to understand the point of view of the people at the time. If you are dealing first of all with people who are not used to doing this, that’s one thing. But also, you are dealing with an unsettled religious situation, and the fear was that if people prayed their own prayers in their own language, they would pray what they wanted to pray, rather than what was correct. It could be a way of introducing false doctrine. Rather like today, you go to certain prayer meetings and depending on who is praying and what they are praying about you wonder who they are praying to. Prayer is a marvelous way of telling people off without actually speaking to them directly. This is the sort of thing the Queen was afraid of. She didn’t want the worship services of the church to become politicized in this particular way. By sticking to the book, you could ensure that this would not happen. There wouldn’t be the opening to do this sort of thing. That was her argument.

Presbyterian system of church government

These Puritan ministers – the other thing that they wanted to do, and this was the really big sticking point was they wanted to introduce what we would today call a Presbyterian system of church government, in other words, a much more democratic way of running the church, than had previously been the case. This was clearly based on a Geneva model. It was that aspect, more than anything, which made the parliament stand back and hesitate because, if a Presbyterian system of church government had been introduced, the state would have lost control of the church. It would not have been possible to control every Presbytery and every minister. Whereas, if you had bishops, you see bishops were few in number, they were easily watched and they were easily replaced if they got out of line. Which is what the queen did on occasion, she wasn’t averse to telling her bishops what to do. As a way of maintaining the state control of the church, the system of bishops was actually much more efficient, from the government’s point of view. Needless to say, one of the main reasons the Puritan ministers wanted a Presbyterian system of government was precisely because they saw it as a way of getting out of state control. They proposed this as a means of reestablishing the effective independence of the church and the right of the church to govern itself which had been taken away by Henry VIII back in 1534.

The Silent Majority

Now, the question of what the vast majority of the people in the middle thought is extremely controversial. Whenever you have theological argument, the silent majority is kind of unpredictable. You just don’t know what the average person thinks or why they think it. The reasons people give for voting the way they do vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. When Elizabeth took over in 1558, this broad mass of the population could not really be described a Protestant. If you mean the word ‘Protestant’ in any theological way, you would have to say that they were not Protestant. Whether they were Catholic in any definable sense is very difficult to say. The truth seems to be that most people, then as now, were traditionalists. They didn’t really care what you did as long as you didn’t change anything. However, it can be said that the wind was blowing in a Protestant direction. The large numbers of executions of Protestant martyrs under Mary Tutor had shifted opinion at least in those places where they were able to watch the burnings, in the big cities. So the urban population which was at most 20% of the total had turned against the notion of Catholic restoration. The land owning classes were against it because they were afraid that if the monasteries were revived they would lose some of their land. Generally there was a kind of bias in favor of not restoring the old order. But how far they were prepared to go in adopting something that you and I would recognize as Protestantism is hard to say.

Protestant side

What we do know, however, is that during the 45 years that Elizabeth was on the throne, this changed. It was during that generation that the broad mass of the population became Protestant in awareness. They began to realize that there had been a reformation and that they were on the Protestant side.


Now the factors involved in this were many.

Geneva Bible

The widespread distribution of the Geneva Bible, a cheap version clearly Protestant in emphasis and tendency which a lot of ordinary people were able to buy… this is the first version they buy, so they haven’t got an older version they can compare it with this is their first exposure to the scriptures. And it is an exposure to a very strong Calvinistic type of Protestantism. So, that’s one factor.

Foxe’s book of Martyr’s

Another factor is that the Protestants had good propagandists. The most famous one was a man called John Foxe, who wrote his acts of the martyr’s in 8 volumes originally. This was the kind of lurid tale. It went back originally to Steven, he started with Steven in the New Testament and worked his way through church history, all the people who’d been burnt to death or stoned to death or something or other for their faith. He concentrated on the ones he knew personally in his own lifetime. It is thanks to John Foxe that we today have the kind of information we have about the martyrs under Mary. Foxe had his own point of view. His bias is quite clear when you read him. Modern historians have a very high opinion of him, because he is remarkably accurate, particularly when he is dealing with what to him was recent history. Every clergyman in the country was obliged to have a copy. This was another one of Elizabeth’s concessions to the Puritans in 1571. This of course meant mass printing of this book, and it became standard reading in Elizabethan England. Everybody read Foxe’s book of Martyrs.  Once they read that, and they read what an awful thing Catholicism was, this also pushed them in a pro-protestant direction.

Theology and Education

Beginning about 1580 or maybe the 1570’s, there was a massive operation of translation from German, French and Latin into English. The English reformers did not on the whole produce their own theology. You get theological writings, but they didn’t have their own theological system, nor did they write biblical commentaries of any great length. What they did was they translated. In particular they translated Calvin. Most of the English translations of Calvin were done in this period. They became the theological textbooks of the rising generation, because that is all they had. There were no other books. Suddenly you have this ready-made set of commentaries. This was the library which the average pastor bought at this time. Of course, you would imbibe Protestant theology whether you liked it or not. This became the dominant way of thinking in the universities as the pastors were trained. Elizabeth insisted that all future clergy should be trained at a university. That helped to inculcate protestant ideas, not just an anti-Catholicism bias, but some kind of Protestant content and a direction for the future. Now these people as they went out into the churches, preached and taught this new doctrine. People in the pew gradually came to be exposed to a protestant way of thinking and to protestant beliefs.

It didn’t happen all together without controversy. Clearly, most of the university trained people who had their Calvin in their back pack and who went off to the parishes, these tended to be more what we would call Puritan for several reasons.

One, they were young and enthusiastic.

Two, they were better educated than the people they were replacing, or going to assist.

Also, things were moving that way generally

Now what happened, very often, was that they would get to a church and they would become assistants to the rector of the church. They were usually called, Lecturers. This was their basic task. They went as preachers and teachers. Often the rector of a parish would not have had an education. If he was old enough that he had been trained before the coming of Elizabeth in 1559 or even before these reforms took root, he might not know his theology and so on. Elizabeth passed laws saying that people of that kind would not be licensed to preach. They wouldn’t be allowed to preach because they didn’t have the education. If you didn’t have a university degree, you weren’t allowed to preach in Elizabethan England. This meant that very often it was the assistant who did all the preaching in the church, and the teaching.

Sunday school conflict

What they tried to do was to establish what we would call Sunday schools, which would meet after church on Sunday morning, to teach people the bible. This caused major upset in parish life. Sunday was the only day people had off. Church was the only place anybody met. That was a great social occasion. After church was the time people got together and socialized. It was called church ale, the fellowship time after worship. It’s out of that that modern games, football, cricket, baseball… emerged. These were the games that were invented by these people at that sort of time. You can imagine how popular the young lecturers from the university were. This caused enormous social distress.

It became one of the big Puritan issues. It was out of that conflict, that what we call Sabbatarianism developed. It was the pressure from this kind of young bible-thumping preacher who said; I can’t get a Sunday school class together because they are all getting drunk and playing games. This has got to stop. They wanted laws passed which would say: no beer on Sunday; no games on Sunday; no nothing on Sunday apart from prayer and bible study Now, we know where this all led, and we can see this today. But the big difference between today and the 16th century is that we have other times that we can do those things. The conflict is a very real one.


This begins to create at the popular level a division. The division is between those people who take their religion seriously enough to want to spend Sunday afternoon in Bible study and prayer and those people who say this is the only time of the week that I have to kick a ball around, and that’s what I want to do. Once you get into that kind of discussion it is difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong. This is where the real basic division at popular level gradually sank in.

Class division

There was to some extent a class issue as well. On the whole, the rising middle class, the people who took life seriously, tended to be the bible reading Sunday afternoon types. They were more open to the belief that football was just a waste of time. The lower class of people tended to want to play football. Also the aristocracy, don’t need to study and therefore they are just as ignorant as the peasants. What you are dealing with is an aristocracy which is not based on merit. It’s not based on achievement. You don’t really need to know how to read and write. What you need to know is how to manage a farm or an estate. The upper and lower classes were on this issue one against the middle class, in so far as you can talk in class terms. You can see these groups emerging at this particular point.

Puritan Presbyterian movement

Through the 1570’s and 1580’s, the Puritan groups gradually began to organize. There was by 1580 in England a strong Presbyterian movement. It was a movement, it was not a denomination. These were people inside the churches who wanted a change, but they weren’t prepared to leave the church. They weren’t separatists. They were inside the church, hoping, praying, and gradually working for change. They organized themselves into what we today would call cell groups. They would meet on a regional basis, and discuss mutual problems and read the Bible together. They were organized in an informal way across the country.

Whitgift – Fix the Puritans

It’s at this point that the government begins to get worried, because although things were still at a very informal level, it wouldn’t take long once you have a network in operation, if this network were taken over by the right sort of person or the wrong sort of person depending on your point of view, you could easily see how it could be used against the established order. In 1583, fearing what might happen, Elizabeth appointed as her archbishop of Canterbury, a man by the name of John Whitgift. He was archbishop of Canterbury from 1583 to 1604. Whitgift’s brief was: fix the Puritans.

Whitgift/Cartwright – dissolve cells

Whitgift began with the intellectual approach. He engaged the leading Puritan spokesman, Thomas Cartwright, a divinity professor at Cambridge, an intellectual and very influential because he is teaching theology at Cambridge University which is preparing men for the ministry so you can imagine what an influential position this is. He and Cartwright debated the merits of what you might call Puritanism. Whitgift managed to persuade Cartwright that in theological terms as far as doctrine was concerned, they believed the same thing. Whitgift was a Calvinist in doctrine every bit as much as Cartwright was. Where they differed was over tactics and over church government. Whitgift argued that church government was a secondary issue, and that as long as the doctrine was right, it wasn’t worth fighting about, that what Cartwright was after might be fine in an ideal society, but as you are dealing with a settled society with an existing system, as long as you can live with it, it is not preaching false doctrine, it’s best not to worry about it. Cartwright was actually persuaded of this. He accepted this. He actually had enough influence over these cell group people to dissolve the network. In 1585, this network of cell groups dissolved itself. Whitgift won the argument, at least at that point.

Temporary unity

Now, one of the reasons for this was that in 1585 there was very great fear that Protestantism was going to be snuffed out. Word was coming that Phillip of Spain was planning an invasion of England and it was absolutely essential that all Protestants unite. As long as that was a real threat, which it remained for the next 3 or 4 years, this unity held. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, it fell apart again. Not because of Cartwright; Cartwright never went back on what he had decided, but because of other people. It fell apart on both sides.

Richard Bancroft – Denounces Puritans

First of all there was a young man by the name of Richard Bancroft, who can best be described as one of those people who got promoted too young. He became a bishop at too early an age. He rather liked being a bishop, and he rather disliked people who didn’t like bishops. In 1589 he stood up in London outside St. Paul’s, the cathedral, and preached a sermon in which he denounced Puritans. He went through all the catalogue of what he thought Puritans were and denounced them claiming that they had no business preaching their doctrines in the church and basically telling them to shape up or ship out.

Divine right of bishops

Bancroft’s belief: He introduces a new doctrine at this point which is the divine right of bishops. Divine right has to be understood because it becomes a very important concept. In Latin it is …. Jure divino … What does this mean?  Legally, the term ‘divine right’ means it has scriptural authority. In other words, what Bancroft was arguing was that the New Testament says that the church has to have bishops, priests or presbyters and deacons, three orders of ministry, in a hierarchical order. Now today we know that this is wrong, that in the New Testament a bishop, an episcopos, and a presbyter are the same thing. This is one of the things that modern scholarship has discovered. It wasn’t so clear to Bancroft. Bancroft was trying to make out that according to the New Testament, there should be at the head of each church one man in charge, the bishop, the episcopos and that he received his commission from God. Once he was chosen to be bishop of the church, he didn’t have to answer to anybody, he didn’t have to submit a report to the congregation to see how he was doing, the congregation had no further control over him; he was only answerable in his conscience to God. Now, in one sense this was taken very seriously, people believed this. We could all say we are all answerable to God in our conscience. However, it is not difficult to see how if you’re in this kind of position, being answerable only to God could lead to some very strange results, particularly if you can’t distinguish very clearly between yourself and God. The scope for abuse would be enormous, especially if there is no way of getting rid of this person. So, there were problems with this.

Marprelate tracts

These problems were brought out very quickly, by a group of tracts called the Marprelate tracts which claimed to be written by someone called Martin Marprelate. Well clearly this is a pseudonym. This is not his real name. Martin was taken from Martin Luther. Marprelate is mar, in other words destroy, the prelate. The prelate is the bishop. We have never to this day discovered who wrote these tracts. But, obviously people of Puritan sympathies were behind it. The Marprelate tracts took Bancroft on basically by saying, well look at the kind of people who were made bishops. It was a series of attacks, sometimes very personal on the men in office. Saying that these people you hold up as models and people who are only responsible to God in fat are deeply corrupt, they’re lining their own pockets, they’re not true believers… They had one or two notorious cases that they concentrated on and they produced some very biting satire against the bishops in question. Needless to say, the authors were declared to be outlaws. A hunt was undertaken to find them. They knew there was a printing press somewhere that was producing these tracts. They never found it. This can only mean that there were enough people who sympathized with the Marprelate tracts that they were covering for these people. They would have been betrayed otherwise. This is an indication that at grass roots level, by 1589 or so, there is increasing sympathy and support for Puritanism.

But the Bancroft episode was important for another reason. Bancroft was not rebuked; he was not punished; nothing happened to him. He was just allowed to carry on. And this made a number of people begin to wonder whether there was any real hope of change in the church.

Moderates – wait for James VI

The more moderates, people like Cartwright; they had argued –the Queen is getting old, she cannot live forever. Wait till she dies. When she dies – she’s the problem; she wants to keep things the way they were when she was a young girl and she’s not going to change now that she is an old lady, so we just have to wait for this. She is going to be succeeded by King James VI of Scotland who is being brought up as a Presbyterian who has all the good Calvinist theology being rammed down his throat. When he takes over, it’s all going to be alright. That’s got to happen sometime.


To which the more radical Puritans say; yes but it’s always the ones you wait around wanting to die who live forever. So early in the 1590’s they began to set up for the first time independent congregations. Now this is a new development. Now we are no longer talking about non-conformist Puritans. We are talking about separatists, people who actually broke with the state church and formed independent congregations. In popular imagination, these things have got confused. The average person does not see a difference between Puritans and Separatists. Theologically speaking, that’s true. Today’s Separatist was yesterday’s Puritan. These are Puritans who left. They are radical Puritans. But in England at this time, it is important to make a distinction, between the Puritans who stayed in the church hoping and praying for further reform, and those who gave up on the church, who left it and established their own independent groups. The weakness of Separatism is that if you move away to establish your own group it very seldom happens that a large group of people leave together and form one group. What tended to happen was that individuals who got fed up would go out as individuals and other people would follow them as individuals. They tended to be known for this. There was a man called Robert Browne. He led a group of people out of the church and they came to be known as the Brownists, because they followed him, a very personal kind of thing. And therefore the Separatists are hard to pin down. What did they believe? Who were they? How many were there? We don’t know a lot of these things. All we can say for sure is that a number of leaders of the Separatist movement were arrested and a few of them were actually put to death in 1592, 1593, around that time. This then indicated to people of this kind that if they wanted to be Separatists, the only way they could do it was to get out of the country. To stay in England, you couldn’t be a Separatist. You ran the risk of persecution.

Separatists settle in Holland

So what happened was that a lot of these groups left. But they left in small numbers. It’s impossible to get any kind of real measurement of them. On the whole they went to Holland. Holland was by European standards at that time the most open minded and liberal place. It was also not very far away. You could go to Holland and you could establish your own independent congregation there and the Dutch didn’t particularly mind. These were foreigners. They were going to help in the fight against Spain. They were anti-Catholic. From 1594, 1595, you start getting English separatist congregations establishing themselves in the different cities of Holland.


Now, this was a new experience for the separatists as well. In Holland they came across people they had never previously met, including Anabaptists. There weren’t any Anabaptists in England at this time, or very few. A lot of these separatist congregations met these Anabaptists which we can now call Mennonites, because they were follower of Menno Simons on the whole, and were attracted to them for several reasons. Mainly because Mennonite congregations appeared to a lot of them to be what they themselves were striving for, that is to say a pure church.


Now strict Mennonites did not appeal to the English Separatists, mainly because strict Mennonites practiced excommunication or as they called it, shunning, rather too readily. There had been a split among the Mennonites over this issue, because some of the Dutch Mennonites said: you can’t just go around excommunicating people because you don’t like the color of their hair or something like this. This is a very serious thing and you have to be a little bit more flexible. You have to be willing to restore people once they say they are sorry and repent, and bring them back into the Church. So, the split occurred in Holland among the Dutch. The more liberal Mennonites, the ones who were prepared to turn the other cheek and forgive came to be known as the Waterlanders. It was these people who appealed to the English Separatists.

English Baptists

Many of these English Separatists began to look toward these Waterlander people as brothers in the faith and also as models for the way in which their own Separatist congregations should develop. It is out of this context that English Baptists came into being. That is the channel by which the Baptist movement began in the English speaking world.  It’s important that you not only understand that that is the way it happened, but also what didn’t happen. The Separatists did not establish what you would call a Baptist Church. There was no Baptist Church in England until 1689. What you have are people of Baptist persuasion, people of Baptist belief. But that is not the same thing as having a church, a denomination. Through most of the 17th century, the people you think of as Baptists, the modern parallel is not with the Baptist Church. That is the wrong model. The modern parallel is with Charismatics, because Charismatics are a definable group of people, but they’re not really a church. They are a spiritual movement rather than a church. If you change the criteria of judgment, if for example you take out speaking in tongues and you put something else in, you might discover that the definition of who you are dealing with changes because these people are noticeable and definable for one aspect only of their beliefs. Baptists are in the same boat. What you have is people with a similar view on Baptism but they weren’t agreed on other things. Because they were independent congregations, there were lots of other ideas going around at the same time - Notably, the tremendous controversy between Calvinists and Arminians.  Some of these people came down on the Calvinist side, and some of these people came down on the Arminian side. So right from the beginning, it depends how you define them.

Baptist Denomination 1689 Calvinist

It’s a different matter if you take the Baptist denomination in 1689 when it formed itself as a denomination. Then it was Calvinist. That’s quite clear, because the second London confession of 1689 is a Calvinist confession. It’s the Westminster Confession slightly altered.

But if you go back to the very beginning, it’s hard to say, because the whole issue is – well Baptists were not a church. They weren’t a denomination as such, so therefore you could have somebody who practiced believer’s baptism alright, but what they thought about predestination might be quite different. If you drew the line around that, you might get a different grouping.  It wasn’t that clear at the very beginning. It’s important that you understand this because throughout the 17th century, the early history of these movements, unless you realize that what you are talking about is vaguely undefined groups of people, you’ll go wrong.

John Bunyan

To give an example, John Bunyan, the great 17th century Puritan writer; was John Bunyan a Baptist?  A lot of people say yes, he was. And he was in that he believed in and practiced believer’s baptism. But, there are several complications here. Because Bunyan’s chapel in Bedford which still exists was not restricted to people of Baptistic persuasion. It still isn’t till this day, because Bunyan himself insisted on this. There are two membership rolls, and when you join Bunyan’s chapel, you have to decide: are you going to be on the Baptist roll or are you going to be on the paedobaptist roll. You choose your view of baptism and you go on the corresponding roll. That was set up by Bunyan himself. Even more problematic is that Bunyan himself had his own children baptized as infants in the Church of England. His Baptist convictions are not without a certain amount of compromise. Bunyan is not really classifiable in those terms. What mattered to Bunyan was not baptism. We know this because he wrote a book about it. He said this is not the main issue. What mattered to Bunyan was Calvinism. Bunyan makes it quite plain that he would rather deal with a Calvinist Presbyterian than with an Arminian Baptist. As far as he was concerned, the Calvinist Arminian divide, was a much more serious thing than what your point of view on baptism might have been. He was himself convinced of believer’s baptism. But not to the point of insisting that other people were to be rejected on those grounds. Nor to the degree of accepting those that believed in believer’s baptism if the rest of their theology was a bit peculiar. That was for him not the deciding factor.

Oliver Cromwell – what denomination was he? Nobody really knows.

John Milton, the poet, what church did he belong to? Nobody really knows.

You can’t pin them down in ways which would mean something to us.

You are dealing with a fluid situation where labels that we are used to don’t fit.

As long as we have that clearly in our minds, we can come back next time to look at the quarrels of the 17th century because it was out of those quarrels that denominations as we know them eventually emerged. As long as you realize that for about 100 years, form 1589 to 1689, people floated. Things were not pinned down in the way that they were after that time.