The new King, raised in the old feudal and social code of the land, and lost in the London of merchants and Puritans, was troubled beyond patience by the variety and the intensity of religious beliefs. The right of individual judgment, which every new opinion preached until it came to power, united with the spread of the Bible to encourage the diversity of sects. One pamphleteer (1641) listed twenty-nine; another (1646), 180. Besides the cleavage between Catholics and Protestants, there was the tense division of Protestants into Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Puritans, and of Puritans into Independents who dreamed of a republic, Quakers who opposed war, violence, and oaths, Millenarians—or Fifth Monarchy Men—who believed that Jesus would soon come to establish His personal rule on earth, Antinomians who argued that the elect of God were exempt from human laws, and Brownist Separatists, and Seekers, and Ranters. A member of Parliament complained that “mechanical men” (artisans) were setting up pulpits and preaching their own hot brands of faith, many of them clothing economic or political demands in Scriptural texts. And there were Anabaptists, who administered baptism only to adults; and Baptists, who separated from the Separatists (1606) and divided (1633) into General Baptists rejecting, and Particular Baptists accepting, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

The multiplication of sects, and their spirited debates, led a small minority to doubt all forms of Christianity. Bishop Fotherby mourned (1622) that “the Scriptures (with many) have lost their authority, and are thought only fit for the ignorant and the idiotic.”5And the Reverend James Cranford (1646) spoke of “multitudes” who “have changed their faith either to Skepticism … or Atheism, to believe nothing.”6 A pamphlet entitled Hell Broke Loose: A Catalogue of the Many Spreading Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies of These Times (1646) cited, as the first heresy, the opinion “that the Scripture, whether a true manuscript [an authentic text] or no … is but humane [man-made], and not able to discover [reveal] a divine God.”7 Another heresy declared that “right Reason is the rule of Faith, and … we are to believe the Scriptures, and the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, so far as we see them agreeable to reason, and no further.”8 A large number of doubters denied hell and the divinity of Christ. A growing number of thinkers, who came to be called deists, sought a compromise between skepticism and religion by proposing a Christianity confined to the belief in God and immortality. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, gave this via media a philosophical formulation in a remarkable essay on truth, De veritate (1624). Truth, said Herbert, is independent of Scripture, and cannot be decreed by a church or any other authority. The best test of truth is universal assent. Consequently the wisest religion would be a “natural” rather than a revealed religion, and would limit itself to doctrines generally accepted by the different creeds: that there is a Supreme Being, that He should be worshiped chiefly by virtuous living, and that good conduct will be rewarded, and bad conduct punished, either here or in a life hereafter. Herbert, says Aubrey, died “serenely,” after being refused the sacraments.9

Parliament was more worried about Catholicism than about heresy. In 1634 the Catholics in England were probably a quarter of the population,10 and, despite all laws and perils, there were still some 335 Jesuits there.11 Prominent nobles accepted the old faith. George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, announced his conversion in 1625; in 1632 Charles gave him a charter to found the colony that became Maryland. The Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, sent an emissary to Rome (1633) to solicit a cardinal’s hat for a British subject. The Anglican King offered to allow a Catholic bishop to reside in England if Urban VIII would support Charles’s plan for some diplomatic marriages (1634); the Pope refused. The Catholics called for religious tolerance, but Parliament—remembering Catholic intolerance, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the Gunpowder Plot, and loath to risk inquiry into Protestant titles to once Catholic property—demanded instead the full enforcement of the anti-Catholic laws. A strong “no popery” sentiment, especially in the gentry and the middle class, opposed alike the influx of Catholic priests into England and the growing approximation of Anglican to Catholic ritual and thought.

The Established Church enjoyed the full protection of the state. The Anglican creed and worship were legally compulsory; even the Thirty-nine Articles were made law of the land (1628). The Anglican bishops claimed the Apostolic Succession—that is, that they had been ordained by an Apostle; and they rejected the Presbyterian and Puritan assertion that others than bishops might validly ordain a minister. Many Anglican ecclesiastics in this age were men of great learning and good will. James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, was a real scholar despite his famous calculation (in his Annales Veteris Testamenti, 1650) that God had created the world on October 22, 4004 B.C.—a chronological slip that was made semiofficial in editions of the Authorized Version.12 John Hales, chaplain to an English embassy in Holland, preached doubt, reason, and toleration:

The ways that lead us to … any knowledge … are but two: first, experience, secondly ratiocination. They that come and tell you what to believe, what you are to do, and tell you not why, they are not physicians but leeches … The chiefest sinew and strength of wisdom is not easily to believe…. Those things which we reverence for antiquity, what were they at their first birth? Were they false? Time cannot make them more true. The circumstance of time … is merely impertinent… It is not the variety of opinions but our own perverse wills—who think it meet that all should be conceited [of the same thought] as ourselves are—which hath so inconvenienced the Church. Were we not so ready to anathematize each other where we concur not in opinion, we might in hearts be united … Two parts there are that do completely make up a Christian man—a true faith and an honest conversation [conduct]. The first, though it seems the worthier, and gives us the name of Christians, yet the second, in the end, will prove the surer … There is no kind of man … though he be an heathen and idolater, unto whom the skirts of Christian compassion do not reach.13

Hale’s generosity was not reciprocated by some “idolators.” A Jesuit, writing under the name “Edward Knott” a tract entitled Charity Mistaken (1630), maintained that, barring accidents, no Protestant could be saved.14 The condemned were reassured by William Chillingworth, whose The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1637) was the outstanding theological treatise of the time. Chillingworth knew both sides: he had been converted to Catholicism, had returned to Protestantism, and still had his reservations; he had, said Clarendon, “contracted such a habit of doubting that by degrees he grew confident of nothing, and a skeptic, at least, in the greatest mysteries of religion.”15

The most eloquent of these Caroline Anglicans was Jeremy Taylor. His sermons are still readable, and more moving than Bossuet’s; even a Frenchman has been stirred by them.16 Taylor was an ardent Royalist, a chaplain in the army of Charles I. When the Presbyterians and the Puritans controlled Parliament and abused the once intolerant Anglicans intolerantly, he issued The Liberty of Prophesying (1646), a timid call for toleration: any Christian who accepted the Apostles’ Creed should be received within the amity of the Church, and Catholics were to be left free unless they insisted on papal sovereignty over England and kings. I Taylor was captured and imprisoned by the Parliamentary party in the Civil War, but after the Restoration he was raised to the episcopacy, and his ardor for toleration cooled.

The growing influence of Catholicism appeared in the predominant Anglican of the age. William Laud was a man of ideas and will, born to rule or die, strictly virtuous, severely strict, and resolute to the point of irascible inflexibility. Like a good churchman, he took it for granted that a unified religious belief was indispensable to successful government, and that a complex ceremonial was necessary for a tranquilizing and effectual faith. To the sorrow of Presbyterians and Puritans, he proposed to recall the arts to the service of the Church, to beautify the altar, the pulpit, and the baptismal font, to restore the cross to the ritual and the surplice to the priest. As a special mountain of offense, he ordered the Communion table, which heretofore had been placed in the center of the chancel (where it had sometimes served as a hat stand), to be put behind a railing at the eastern end of the church. These changes were mostly a revival of Elizabethan customs and laws, but to the Puritans, who loved simplicity, they represented a backsliding to Catholicism and the renewal of a class separation between priest and congregation. Laud seems to have felt that the Catholic Church was right in surrounding religion with ceremony and endowing the priest with an aura of sanctity.17 The Roman Church appreciated his views, even to offering him a cardinal’s hat.18 He courteously refused, but the offer appeared to support the reproaches of the Puritans. They called him the forerunner of Antichrist. Charles made him Archbishop of Canterbury (1633) and a commissioner of the treasury. Another archbishop was made Chancellor of Scotland. People complained that ecclesiastics were returning to political power, as in the heyday of the medieval Church.

From his Lambeth Palace the new Primate of All England set himself to remolding English ritual and morals. He made a hundred new enemies by levying, through the Court of High Commission (a judiciary body set up by Elizabeth, and now predominantly ecclesiastical), severe fines from persons convicted of adultery; and the victims found little comfort in his devoted use of the fines to repair the decaying St. Paul’s Cathedral and to drive lawyers, hucksters, and gossipers from its naves.19 Ministers who rejected the new ritual were deprived of their benefices; writers and speakers who repeatedly criticized it, who questioned the Christian creed, or who opposed the institution of bishops were to be excommunicated, and were to stand in the stocks and perhaps lose their ears.

The brutality of the punishments exacted under Laud’s regime must be visualized to understand his fate. In 1628, at his instigation, a Puritan minister, Alexander Leighton, was indicted before the Star Chamber as the admitted author of a book that called the institution of bishops anti-Christian and satanic. He was put in irons and was kept in solitary confinement for fifteen weeks in an unheated cell “full of rats and mice, and open to snow and rain.” His hair fell out, his skin peeled off. He was tied to a stake and received thirty-six stripes with a heavy cord upon his naked back; he was placed in the pillory for two hours in November’s frost and snow; he was branded in the face, had his nose slit and his ears cut off, and was condemned to life imprisonment.20 In 1633 Ludowyc Bowyer, who had charged Laud with being a Catholic at heart, was fined, branded, mutilated, and sentenced to imprisonment for life.21 William Prynne, firebrand of the Puritans, in News from Ipswich (1636) denounced Laud’s bishops as servants of the pope and the Devil, and recommended hanging for bishops; he was branded on both cheeks, had his ears cut off, and was jailed till the Long Parliament freed him (1640). A woman who insisted on keeping Saturday as the Sabbath was imprisoned for eleven years.24

Laud’s chief enemies, the Puritans, agreed with him on the necessity of intolerance. They thought it a reasonable conclusion from the divine origin of Christianity and the Scriptures; anyone who opposed a faith so founded must be a criminal or a fool, and society should be protected from the many damnations that would follow from his teaching. The Presbyterians pleaded with Parliament (1648) to legislate life imprisonment for all who continued to teach Catholic, Arminian, Baptist, or Quaker views, and death for all who denied the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation. Cromwell’s Independents, however, offered toleration to all who would accept the fundamentals of Christianity, but they excluded Catholics, Unitarians, and defenders of prelacy.25

There were so many parties among the Puritans that it is a rare generalization that can hold of them all. Most of them adhered to a strict Calvinism, to individual political liberty, to the right of congregations to run their own affairs without episcopal supervision, and to a worship unceremonious, egalitarian, and divorced from the distractions of religious art. They agreed with the Presbyterians in theology, but rejected presbyteries as tending to exercise episcopal power. They insisted on a literal interpretation of Scripture, and condemned the pretense of reason to sit in judgment on revealed truth. They attached as much reverence to the Old Testament as to the New; they applied to themselves the Judaic conception of the chosen people; they baptized their children with the names of Old Testament patriarchs and heroes; they thought of God in terms of a stern Yahveh, and added the Calvinistic conviction that most men were the “children of wrath,” doomed before their birth, by the arbitrary will of a relentless deity, to everlasting hell; and they ascribed the salvation of the few “elect” not to good works but to divine grace granted at divine whim. Some of them thought they talked to God; some, thinking themselves damned, went about the streets groaning in anticipation of their eternal sufferings. The thunderbolts of God seemed always to hang over the heads of men.

In this self-imposed Terror “Merrie England” almost disappeared. The humanism of the Renaissance, the lusty naturalism of the Elizabethans, yielded to a sense of sin, a fear of divine vengeance, which looked upon most pleasures as wiles of Satan and challenges to God. The old monastic fears of the flesh returned, perhaps to a larger proportion of the people than ever in known history before. Prynne declared all embraces “lewd,” all mixed dancing “lascivious.”26 To most Puritans music, stained glass, religious images, surplices, anointed priests were obstacles to direct communion with God. They studied the Bible with devoted diligence and quoted its phrases in nearly every speech, in almost every paragraph; some zealots embroidered their clothing with Scriptural texts; the especially godly added “Verily” or “Yea, verily” to attest sincerity or truth. Good Puritans prohibited the use of cosmetics and banned hairdressing as vanity; they earned the nickname “Roundheads” because they cut their hair close to the head. They denounced the theater as scandalous (it was), the baiting of bears and bulls as barbarous, the morals of the court as pagan. They condemned festival jollities, ringing bells, gathering around the Maypole, drinking healths, playing cards. They forbade all games whatever on the Sabbath; that day was to be kept for God, and it was no longer to bear the heathen name Sunday. They—Milton among them—cried out in anger when Charles I and Laud, renewing an edict of James I, issued (1633) a “Declaration of Sports” sanctioning Sunday games after Sunday prayers. The Puritans extended their Sabbatarianism—the advocacy of blue Sundays—to Christmas; they lamented the style of celebrating the birth of Christ with merrymaking, dancing, and games; they rightly ascribed many Christmas customs to pagan origins; they demanded that Christmas should be made a solemn day of fasting and atonement; and in 1644 they prevailed upon Parliament to sanction this view by law.

As Protestantism had stressed the sermon beyond Catholic precedent, so Puritanism expanded it even beyond Protestant custom. A hunger for sermons gnawed at some hearts; the mayor of Norwich moved to London to hear more preaching; a mercer resigned from a congregation because it provided only one sermon per Sunday. Special “lecturers” arose to ease this hunger—laymen hired by a parish to preach a Sunday sermon additional to what the regular minister offered. Most Puritan preachers took their function with high seriousness; they terrified their audiences with descriptions of hell; some of them denounced sinners publicly by name; one pointed out the drunkards in his congregation and, talking of whores, specified as an example the wife of a chief parishioner; another told his auditors that if adultery, swearing, cheating, and Sabbath breaking could lead a man to heaven, the whole parish would be saved.27 The Puritan ministers felt it their duty to prescribe or proscribe the conduct, dress, studies, and amusements of the people. They forbade the observance of the holydays established by pagan custom or the Catholic Church, and so added some fifty working days to the year.28 A call to duty sounded throughout the Puritan ethic, and with it a stern inculcation of courage, self-reliance, prudence, thrift, and work. It was an ethic congenial to the middle class; it made for industrious workers and gave a religious sanction to mercantile enterprise and private property. Poverty, not wealth, was a sin; it revealed lack of personal character and divine grace.29

Politically, the Puritans aspired to a democratic theocracy in which there would be none but moral and religious distinctions among men, no ruler but Christ, no law but God’s Word. They resented the heavy taxes that supported the Anglican Church; their businessmen felt themselves milked by that expensive and superior Establishment; the “trading part of a nation,” said one pamphleteer, “is devoured in this Prelatical Gulph.”30 The Puritans defended wealth, but scorned the idle luxury of the nobility. They carried morality to excess, as later ages carried liberty; but perhaps their inhuman code was a necessary corrective to the loose morals of Elizabethan England. They produced some of the strongest characters in history—Cromwell and Milton, and the men who conquered the American wilderness. They defended and transmitted to us parliamentary government and trial by jury. To them, in part, England owes the solid sobriety of the British character, the stability of the British family, and the integrity of Britain’s official life. Nothing is lost.

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