Lecture 17: Protestant Church in England under James
Course: Church History II
I want to go on talking about the way in which Puritanism gradually became a powerful force in English life, and eventually led to civil war and the break up of the national church. Where we have got to is the 1590’s, the last decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. A time when the radical puritan elements were becoming fed up with what they saw as an interminable procrastination. They came to believe that never was there going to be any change in the church. The only way they were going to get what they wanted was by leaving it, by separating and establishing their own independent communities. The key thing about these people was their independency. Each congregation decided for itself what it was going to do, how it was going to operate. This independence is the key point that you have to bear in mind. That is what characterizes separatism. Each individual congregation decides its own doctrine, its own form of church government, and its own way of doing things.
Now, it was because of that some of these independent churches became Baptists. You can’t say all Separatists are Baptists, that’s not true. But some of them became Baptists. They could become Baptists because of the kind of church government that they had. If they had had centralized control, if they had been under some kind of Presbyterian system whereby they were answerable to a wider body, the chances of them taking on baptistic theology would have been greatly lessened. You would have had to persuade the entire group or a majority at least to accept it. You couldn’t just decide for yourself and do it in your congregation. You would have to present it to the body as a whole. The minute you have to do something like that, you are delaying the process. The growth of baptistic churches came about with the speed that it did and with the variety that it did because there were already in existence these independent separatistic type congregations. That was the preparation for this. But not all of these congregations took on these new doctrines. Just as you cannot say that all independents were Calvinists or all independents were Arminians or all independents were anything other than independent.
James in Scotland
Things could have stayed that way for a long time, except that inevitably the day came when Queen Elizabeth died. Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, James I of England. James VI was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. Who his father was remains a mystery. Officially his father is Lord Darnley, because Lord Darnley was officially the Queen’s husband. There always has been a lot of doubt about who James’ father really was. James was 6 months old when he became King of Scotland. That was in 1567. He was 37 years old in 1603 when he became King of England as well. He remained King until his death in 1625.
James was from the Protestant Presbyterian point of view, the ideal king, for the simple reason that he was too young when he became king to know any different. Thanks to the tender mercies of people like John Knox and his followers, James was brought up in the strictest imaginable form of Calvinistic Presbyterian rectitude. This inevitably left its mark on him.
The positive side is that he was undoubtedly the most learned monarch ever to rule any country anywhere. In modern times he was one of the most learned people ever to have sat on a throne, and theologically he was pretty well in the first rank. He wrote theological treatises which stood comparison with writings of major theologians of the time. He took a great interest in things like Arminianism. He was against it. He got involved in the controversy and he knew what it was all about and he could carry on conversations about in depth theology. He had a genuine interest and concern in it.
At the same time, there was not a lot of opportunity in his early years for what you might call normal life. His father was unknown, he didn’t know his mother, and his mother was in prison in England so he grew up as an orphan in actual fact. The Calvinists who ruled the church took very little notice of him. They didn’t give him a great deal of say in what was going on in the country. They brought about a kind of Calvinistic revolution in Scotland which had among other things the effect of reducing the king to little more than a kind of honorary chairman of the board. What today would be a constitutional monarch, he came as close to that as anybody did in the 16th century.
When it became clear that James was going to become King of England, he did what he could to move the Calvinistic Church of Scotland more in the direction of the Church of England. He didn’t get very far. But through influence and friends he tried to do this because he wanted the two countries, England and Scotland to be united when he took over. He figured the only way to do this was to make the Scottish Church as much like the English one as possible, so that the union when it came would be a lot easier to swallow on both sides.
When James became King of England, which he did in March of 1603, life for him changed dramatically, because he stepped into the shoes of a dictator, Queen Elizabeth, whose position in the English state was very different indeed from his position in Scotland. This for James was a kind of psychological liberation, because at the age of 37, for the first time, he could do what he liked. James took to this. Rather than trying to impose Presbyterianism on England, he kind of went the other way, thereby turning out to be a great disappointment to the Presbyterians in England, the Puritans in England who expected that when he took over things would go very much their way. However, it took awhile for that to become clear.
On his way south, because he had to travel from Scotland to London, in April of 1603, a group of theologians from Cambridge met him and presented him with a petition demanding certain changes in the church – changes in a more Puritan direction. James did what every good politician does in such circumstances does – formed a committee to investigate this. This committee met in London at Hampton Court in January of 1604 and came up with a number of proposals which were designed to satisfy some of the Puritan demands. Most historians most of the time say that the Hampton Court conference was a defeat for the Puritans. What happened was that James in fact sided with the bishops, with the conservative establishment in England and at this point revealed that he was not going to embark on any major changes. However, recently, in the last 15-20 years, historians have revised their opinion of this conference slightly. James was in a difficult position. England was ten times larger than Scotland in population, not in size. James was a foreigner. His entitlement to the crown was accepted, but he was so distantly related to Elizabeth that it could be easily questioned by anybody who might decide to do so. He had to establish his position with the people who were in power in England. The people who were in power were conservatives. They had been servants of the old Queen. She had chosen them because they were people who thought the way she did and therefore rocking the boat would have meant getting rid of them. James for different reasons couldn’t afford to do that. So his scope for maneuver even if he had wanted to introduce Presbyterianism, was somewhat limited by considerations of political wisdom. In spite of the problems which he faced, he nevertheless did in fact make certain concessions which would move in the Puritan direction.
Authorized Version – King James Version of Bible
The most famous of these and the most successful in the long term was the appointment of yet another committee this time to prepare a translation of the Bible which would be acceptable to everybody. James hated the Geneva Bible mainly because of its marginal notes. The problem was he was too good of a scholar to be able to accept some of these things. He realized it was a lot of prejudice. He thought that the marginal notes were wrong. We have to have a better Bible. He appointed a committee and took a great personal interest in the work. Over the next 7 years this committee prepared a new translation of the Bible using the existing ones, particularly Tyndale, but also trying to make sure that the translation followed the most up to date manuscripts. He was very concerned that it should be academically respectable. This translation was ready in 1611 when it was officially authorized for use in churches. In England it is called the Authorized Version. In this country it is called the King James Version. The great thing about the King James Version is that through all the ups and downs of English Protestantism, for all the splits and divisions that there have been since that time, everybody has gone on using the same bible. It’s only in recent years that people have started using other translations. Bible translation in the English speaking world has almost never been a denominational or a party political activity. People were united by using a common bible. The King James Bible very soon ousted all its rivals, including the Geneva Bible, so that the Puritans, the people who had been brought up on the Geneva Bible gave it up willingly in favor of the new translation. That came out of an attempt to work out a compromise between the religious establishment and the Puritans in the first decade of the 17th century. That was about as far as James was prepared to go.
Otherwise, his politics became increasingly pro-establishment and anti-Puritan as time went on. He was careful; James was a clever man; and he didn’t push things any further than he could. For example, back in Scotland he tried as hard as he could to get the Scottish Church to adapt itself to English ways – things like kneeling to receive communion – that was a big issue. But when the Scots said; there is no way we are going to do that, he didn’t push it. The Synod of Dort, in 1618, the Dutch asked James to be its president, because they were so impressed with his theological learning. James couldn’t leave England to do that, but he sent a very impressive delegation to the Synod of Dort and he gave it his support.
The Book of Sports
Also in 1618, James published a little book called “The Book of Sports.” The long running grass roots controversy between the bible-thumpers and the football players on Sunday afternoon – how are you going to spend the Sabbath? From the 1590’s onwards, what we think of as Sabbatarianism, in other words no activity on Sunday that is unbecoming to the gospel is to be undertaken, and therefore no football or Sunday sport became a Puritan thing. In 1618, James issued his book of sports which said no one is to interfere with people who want to play games on Sunday. Honest recreation is what he called it. Anybody who tried to stop this was to be reprimanded and fined, punished and so on. This was a clear case where he came down in favor of a more liberal position. We today fail to appreciate just how significant this was. That’s because we have Saturday off. We don’t have to choose one or the other. But these people did.
Now there were a lot of people in England at the time that “The Book of Sports” came out who were disgusted by this. So, there was another wave of departures from England as a result of the book of sports. These are the first wave of people who went to Holland originally, but they didn’t last in Holland very long. In 1620, a group of them got a ship, the Mayflower and sailed west to lands unknown as far as most people in England were concerned. As we can see now, this was the beginning of a new country. There are several things you have to understand about New England. First of all, the people who went there were not interested in colonizing a new hemisphere. The reason they called the country New England was because their whole purpose was to go to a virgin territory and build there a model society, in order to prove to people back home that their ideas would work. What the strategy appears to have been was that they were going to go to the New World and stay there for as long as it took for people in England to realize that this was heaven on earth. As soon as people in England realized that this was what the Lord wanted, they would pack up and go back home again, and bring this great blessing to their own country. They weren’t intending to stay in the New World. Now as we know, people in England never saw the light on this particular matter.
New England fulfilled all the worst fears of people who didn’t like Puritanism. The only way you can impose Puritanism is by having what amounts to a police state. The Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, that’s what they were. People who lived in Plymouth and Boston in the 17th century were given a hard time if they didn’t go along with what they were told to do. It turned out that Puritans were far stricter than the English government had ever been in imposing regulations on what you could and could not do, particularly on what males and females could and could not do with each other. Puritan New England rapidly became a place of busybodies, private spying agencies, and people who thought it was God’s will that they should mind each other’s business. And it was not long before the original New England colonies split up because of this. Anybody who, for whatever reason, didn’t get along with the establishment – I mean somebody like Anne Hutchinson for example who had visions and basically ideas of her own and was a woman and all these negative characteristics. She basically had to get out. Things were not good for her. She was persecuted. People like Roger Williams – He was not allowed to proclaim what he thought was right or wrong in Massachusetts so of course he got out and founded Rhode Island. At that particular point he was sort of a Baptist and had baptistic ideas. Baptists were not tolerated in Massachusetts at that point. They had to leave. Now, once this pattern developed – the good thing about New England was that it was big enough and empty enough that if you disagreed with what was going on in your particular patch you could do this, you could pack up and go over the next hill and found your own little Jerusalem and start imposing your own rules and regulations on it, which is what they did. But, this is not a long term solution to the problem. What are you going to do? How are you going to run a society?
In particular, something the original Mayflower people never seemed to have expected is that they started having children. These children grew up and a number of them didn’t get the Puritan bug. There were elements of Puritan thinking which the second generation not all of them accepted. What happened was that the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony refused to allow their children full citizenship rights in the colony unless they were prepared to sign on to the original covenant of the settlers, detailing out at great length what they could and couldn’t do, creating thereby a whole new category of people who in effect were resident aliens. They were given the title half-way covenant. They were permitted to live in the colony. They weren’t expelled. But, they weren’t going to be given full citizenship rights. These people felt so strongly about the rightness of what they believed that they were prepared almost to disinherit their own children. The whole community was prepared to say; our children are no good, and actually write that into some kind of law.
Witch Hunts – Government Intervention
It wasn’t for a very long time, the end of the 17th century, that the British government had to step in and deal with this. They had to suspend the constitution of the colony and clear this all out. The only thing that forced them to do that in the end were all the Salem with hunts, the witch trials. Basically what happened in Massachusetts in the final analysis is that things were going wrong. Here were people growing up who didn’t catch the Puritan vision. Why not? What was wrong? The devil had obviously gotten into the society somehow or other. Where was the devil? Well, any woman who showed her ankle was clearly an agent of Satan. So, you could start with them. It wasn’t long before a number of witches were discovered and forced to confess and put to death. It’s only when things got to that level that the government in London said we’ve got to step in and put an end to this. They suspended the constitution of the colonies, and reconstituted them on a more secular basis. So, the history of 17th century New England was not really of the kind to create a very good impression on people who were not part of it. If you didn’t belong to it, you weren’t attracted by it from the outside.
Virginia – The South
At the same time, Virginia which is a southern colony, which is actually older than anything in New England, was a completely different place. Virginia did have an official established church, but the established church of Virginia, and later on of the other southern colonies as well, was the Church of England. Therefore the basic rule in Virginia was that nobody around here must get too religious. Any religious fanatic and you’re out. It’s very different from the modern situation. One of the ironies of American history is that the Bible belt has moved south. In the 17th century, your Bible belt would have been Massachusetts, Connecticut, not Charleston and Savannah and Virginia. The old south was not a very pious place. That changed in the 19th century, for various reasons we’ll get into that later on. One of the things was the loss of the civil war which created a kind of spiritual void. Circuit riders in the South who evangelized after the revival in the early 19th century, they kind of swept through a country which hadn’t been evangelized particularly, and evangelized it then, if anything over evangelized. By then was getting into Emerson and Thoreau, it was all moving in that direction by then. The South didn’t have any of that tradition. When the revivalists came in the 1820’s 30’s and so on, they really came through a country which had not been evangelized. Where people had a kind of notional religion of a sort, but no firm commitment, they were converted to a powerful evangelist type of faith, which never went down in New England. That was later. But in the 17th century it is important to understand that the southern colonies on the whole were not terribly religious.
The colonies had a different kind of purpose. Massachusetts was designed to be a perfect society, a New Jerusalem. They actually talked like that. Whereas the people who founded Virginia were interested in money, tobacco, cotton this was what they were there for. It wasn’t that they didn’t read the Bible, go to church on Sunday. The whole flavor of the society was quite different. It was much more easy going, much more like England. The American south is much more like England than New England is, even today. They’re not anti-religious, but they’re not committed church going types either.
What you have in this country that we don’t have in England are working class believers, not intellectual people. In Britain you don’t have a lot of non-intellectual Christianity. To meet a brick-layer in church would be an unusual thing. The people who go to Church are your Mountain Brook yuppie types or people who are more substantial in society.