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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 20 — Greatness of Protestant england

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The Reformation not Completed under Edward VI—Fails to Advance under Elizabeth—Religious Destitution of England—Supplication for Planting it with Ministers, etc.—Dispute respecting Vestments, etc.—The Puritans—Their Numbers—Their Aims—Elizabeth Persecutes them— Elizabeth's CharacteręTwo Types of Protestantism Combine to form One Perfect Protestantism—Outburst of Mind—Glory of England— Science—Literature—Arts—Bacon—Shakespeare—Milton, etc.

As with the kings who gathered together against a famous city of old time, so with the Armada, "it came, it saw, it fled." The throne of Elizabeth was saved; the mass was not to be re-established in England, and the Reformation was not to be overthrown in Europe. The tempest had done its work, and now the Protestant kingdoms break out into singing, and celebrate in triumphal notes the deliverance which an Almighty Arm had wrought for them.

We now turn to the state of the Protestant faith within the kingdom. In vain has England been saved from the sword of Spain, if the plant of the Reformation be not taking root and flourishing in it. The accession of Elizabeth to the throne had once more opened the Bible to England after the persecutor had shut it, but the permeation of the nation with its light was somewhat slow. Instead of carrying forward the work of Reformation which Edward VI had left so incomplete, Elizabeth was content to stop short of the point which her brother had reached. The work languished.

For this, various causes may be assigned. Elizabeth was apathetic, and at times even hostile. The throne was too powerful and too despotic to permit the spiritual principle full scope to develop. Besides, the organization for the instruction of the nation was defective, and matters were not improved by the languid way in which such organization as did exist was worked. We find a "Supplication" given in to the Parliament of 1585, praying it to take steps for the planting of England with an educated and faithful ministry; and the statement of facts with which the Supplication was accompanied, and on which it was based, presents a sad picture of the religious destitution of the kingdom. Some of these facts are explained, and others defended, by the bishops in their answer to the Supplication, but they are not denied. The petitioners affirm that the majority of the clergy holding livings in the Church of England were incompetent for the performance of their sacred duties; that their want of knowledge unfitted them to preach so as to edify the people; that they contented themselves with reading from a "printed book;" and that their reading was so indistinct, that it was impossible any one should profit by what was read. Non-residence was common; pluralities were frequent; the bishops were little careful to license only qualified men; secular callings were in numerous cases conjoined with the sacred office; in many towns and parishes there was no stated ministry of the Gospel, and thousands of the population were left untaught. "Yea," say they, "by trial it win be found that there are in England whole thousands of parishes destitute of this necessary help to salvation, that is, of diligent preaching and teaching."

The destitute parishes of England must have amounted to the formidable number of from 9,000 to 12,000, for the bishops in their reply say that they were able to provide pastors, through the universities, for not more than a third of the 18,000 parishes of England. It follows that some 12,000 parishes were without pastors, or enjoyed only the services of men who had no university training. The remedies proposed by the petitioners were mainly these: that a code of laws, drawn from the Scriptures, should be compiled for the government of the Church; that a visitation of all the cities and large towns of the kingdom should take place, and the condition of the nation be accurately reported on; and that zealous and faithful men should not be extruded from the ministry simply because they objected to vestments and ceremonies. [1] The substance of the Supplication would seem to have been embodied in sixteen articles, and sent up from the Parliament to the House of Lords, requesting "reformation or alteration of the customs and practices of the Church established." It was answered by the two archbishops and Cowper, Bishop of Winchester, but nothing more came of it. [2]

The Supplication originated with the Puritans, being drawn up, it is believed, by Mr. Thomas Sampson, a man of some eminence among them. We have seen the first outbreak of that famous but unhappy strife at Frankfort-on-the-Maine. The battle begun on that diminutive stage was continued on the wider theater of England after the accession of Elizabeth. The Marian exiles had contracted a love for the simple polity and worship that existed in the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, Geneva, and some parts of Germany, and on their return to England they sought to establish the same order in their native land. Aiming at this greater purity and simplicity, they were styled Puritans. In the famous Convocation of the Lower House, in 1652, the Puritan party were the majority of those present, but they were out-voted by proxies on the other side. In that assembly they contended for the abrogation of vestments, copes, surplices, and organs in Divine worship; against lay baptism, and the sign of the cross in baptism. As to kneeling at the Lord's Supper, they urged that it might be left indifferent to the determination of the ordinary. The opposing theologians took. their stand on Edward VI's Liturgy, contending that it should not be altered, and fortifying their position from the venerated names of Cranmer, Ridley, and others, by whom it had been framed, and who had sealed their profession at the stake. Some of the greatest names in the Church of England of that day were friendly to the reform pleaded for by the Puritans. Among others, Grindal, Horn, Sandys, Jewell, Parkhurst, and Bentham shared these sentiments. On the return of these scholars and theologians to England, they

were offered bishoprics, but at first declined them, finding the queen inflexible on the question of ceremonies. But after consulting together and finding that these ceremonies were not in themselves sinful, and that the doctrine of the Church remained incorrupt, and that their brethren abroad counseled them to accept, lest the posts offered them should be fined by men hostile to the truth, [3] they came to the conclusion that it was their duty to accept consecration. But there were others, not less distinguished for piety and learning, who could not concur in this course, and who were shut out from the high offices for which their gifts so eminently qualified them. Among these were Miles Coverdale, John Fox the martyrologist, Laurence Humphrey, Christopher Goodman, William Whittingham, and Thomas Sampson. These things are not doctrines, it was argued by those who contended for ceremonies and vestments; they are but forms, they are matters of indifference. If they be indifferent and not vital, it was replied, why force them upon us to the wounding of our con sciences, and at the risk of rending the Church of God? The charge of fanaticism was directed against the one side: that of intolerance was retorted upon the other. The aim of the Puritans, beyond doubt, was to perfect the Reformation which Cranmer had left incomplete.

The more eminent of Elizabeth's ministers of State were substantially with the Puritan party. Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Earl of Bedford, Sir Francis Knollyes, were friendly to a yet greater reform in the Church of England, and disapproved of the rigor with which the Puritans were treated. The main difficulty lay with the queen. One of her leading aims was the reconcilement of English Papists, and hence her dread of a complete dis-severance of the Church of England from that of Rome. She loved splendor in worship as well as in State affairs, and inheriting the imperiousness of her father, she deemed it intolerable that she should be thwarted in matters of rites and vestments. She hated the Puritans, she confiscated their goods, she threw them into prison, and in some instances she shed their blood. Penry had said that the queen, having mounted the throne by the help of the Gospel, would not permit the Gospel to extend beyond the point of her scepter. He was condemned for felony, and hanged. Meanwhile the Reformation of the Church of England stood still. The destruction of the Armada solemnized the nation. It sounded like a great voice bidding them suspend their quarrels, and unite together in the work of Reformation, lest all parties should become the prey of a common foe. The years that followed were years of great prosperity and glory to England, but the queen's views did not enlarge, her policy did not meliorate, nor did her imperiousness abate.

The principle of stability and development, that now began to give such proofs of its mightiness and to draw the eyes of the world upon England, was not planted in Elizabeth; it was rooted somewhere else. She valued the Reformation less for emancipating the conscience than for emancipating her crown. She laid most store upon it for rendering her kingdom independent abroad, not for purifying it at home. As a sovereign she had some good points, but not a few weak ones. She was vaccinating, shuffling, at times deceitful; full of caprices and humors, and without strength of mind to pursue for any long time a high and courageous policy, When threatened or insulted she could assume an attitude and display a spirit that became a great sovereign, but she soon fell back again into her low, shifty policy. She possessed one great quality especially, namely, that of discerning who would prove able and upright servants. She always called strong men to her side, and though she delighted in ornamental men as courtiers, she would permit no hand but a skillful and powerful one to be laid on the helm of the State.

Elizabeth has been called great; but as her character and history come to be better understood, it is seen that her greatness was not her own, but that of the age in which she lived. She formed the center of great events and of great men, and she could not escape being a partaker in the greatness of others, and being elevated into a stature that was not properly her own. The Reformation set England on high; and Elizabeth, as the first person in the State of England, was lifted up along with it.

We have now reached those twenty years (1588—1608) which may be regarded as constituting the era of the Protestant efflorescence in England.

At this point two great Protestant streams unite, and henceforth flow together in the one mighty flood of British Protestantism. England and Scotland now combine to make one powerful Protestantism. It was not given to England alone, nor to Scotland alone, to achieve so great a work as that of consolidating and crowning the Reformation, and of presenting a Protestantism complete on both its political and religious sides to the nations of the earth for their adoption; this work was shared between the two countries. England brought a full political development, Scotland an equally full religious development; and these two form one entire and perfect Protestantism, which throws its shield alike over the conscience and the person, over the spiritual and the temporal rights of man.

Of all the various forces that act on society, Protestantism, which is Religion, is by far the most powerful. "Christ brings us out of bondage into liberty," said Calvin, "by means of the Gospel." These words contain the sum of all sound political philosophy. Protestantism first of all emancipates the conscience; and from this fortress within the man it carries its conquests all over the world that lies without him. Protestantism had now been the full space of a generation in England, and the men who had been born and

trained under it, gave proof of possessing faculties and cherishing aspirations unknown to their fathers. They were a new race, in short. Elizabeth pressed upon the Reformation with the whole weight of the royal supremacy, and the added force of her despotic maxims; but that could not break the spring of the mighty power against which she leaned, nor prevent it lifting up her people into freedom. Protestantism had brought the individual Englishman to the Bible; it taught him that it was at once his duty and his right to examine it, to judge for himself as to what it contained, and to act upon his independent judgment; and the moment he did so he felt that he was a new man. He had passed from bondage into freedom, as respects that master-faculty that gives motion and rigor to all the rest, namely, conscience. As the immediate consequence, the human mind, which had slept through the Middle Ages, awoke in a strength and grandeur of faculty, a richness and beauty of development, which it had exhibited in no former age. England underwent a sudden and marvelous transformation.

In returning to the right road as respects religion, England found that she had returned to the right road as respects government, as respects science, and letters—in short, that she had discovered the one true path to national greatness. The same method—the Inductive—which had put her in possession of a Scriptural faith, would, she saw, as certainly conduct her to freedom in the State. Turning from the priest, England went to the Bible, the great storehouse of revealed truth, and she found there all that was to be believed, and all that was to be done. She adopted the same method in her inquiry after what was true and good in civil government. She looked at the principles of justice and order on which human society has been constituted by its Author, and framing these into law, she found that she had arrived at the right science of political government. Instead of the teaching of the priest, England, in adopting the Reformation, substituted the writing of God in the Bible as the basis of the Church. So in the State; instead of the arbitrary win of one man, England substituted as the basis of government the eternal writing of God, in the constitution which he has given to society. It was the same method with another application; and the consequence was that the political constitution of England, which had remained at the same point for two centuries, now began to make progress, and the despotic rods of the Tudors to be transformed into the constitutional scepters of the princes of the House of Orange.

The same method was pursued in philosophy and science, and with the same result. "If," said Bacon, laying hold of the great principle of the Reformers, "if we would have a really true and useful science, we must go forth into the world of Nature, observe her facts, and study her laws." The key by which the Reformation opened the path to the one true religion, was that which Bacon employed to open the path to true science. And what a harvest of knowledge has since been reaped! The heavens stood unveiled; every star unfolded the law by which it is hung in the vault above; every flower, and crystal, and piece of matter animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, disclosed its secret properties, affinities, and uses. Then arose the sciences of astronomy, of chemistry, and others, which are the foundation of our arts, our mechanics, our navigation, our manufactures, and our agriculture. In a word, out of the principle first proclaimed in modern times by the Reformation, has come the whole colossal fabric of our industrial skin, our mechanical power, our agricultural riches, and our commercial wealth. In fine, from the great fundamental principle of Protestantism, which is the substitution of a Divine for a human authority, came our literature. Thought, so far as thinking to any good purpose was concerned, had slept for long centuries, and would have awaked no more, had it not been touched by the Ithuriel spear of Protestantism. It was long since one really great or useful work, or one really new idea, had been given to the world. A feeble dawn had preceded the Reformation, the fall of the Eastern Empire having compelled a few scholars, with their treasures of Greek lore, to seek asylum in the West.

But that dawn might never have been, but for the desire which Wicliffe had originated to possess the Scriptures in the original tongues. It is also to be borne in mind that the great intellects that arose in Italy in the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, though living in the communion of the Roman Church, and devoting, in the instance of some of them, their genius to her service, had in heart left her theology, and found their way to the Cross. Dante, Petrarch, Michael Angelo, Torquato Tasso, Ariosto, and others owed the emancipation of their genius to their belief in the Evangelical faith. The great poet, painter, and sculptor, Michael Angelo, who reared the dome of St. Peter's and painted the Sistine, thus sings:

"Ah! what does sculpture, what does painting prove,
When we have seen the Cross, and fixed our eye
On Him whose arms of love were there outspread?" [4]

It is the same Evangelical faith—the bondage of the will by sin, and salvation of God—which Ariosto embodies in the following lines:

"How shall my cold and lifeless prayer ascend,
Father of mercies, to thy seat on high,
If, while my lips for thy deliverance cry,
My heart against that liberty contend?

To spare offenders, being penitent,
Is even ours; to drag them from the pip,
Themselves resisting, Lord, is thine alone." [5]

In all the countries of the Reformation a great intellectual awaking was the immediate consequence of the introduction of Protestantism. Geneva and Zurich became centers of literary light and industrial activity; the Huguenots were the first soldiers, writers, merchants, and artisans of France. Holland became as renowned for letters and arts in the years that succeeded its great struggle, as it had been for arms when contending against Spain. But it was in England that the great intellectual outburst attendant on the Reformation culminated. There mind opened out into an amplitude of faculty, a largeness of judgment, a strength and subtlety of reason, and a richness, boldness, and brilliancy of imagination, of which the world had seen no similar example, and which paled even the brightest era of classic times. By one quality were all the great thinkers and writers who illuminated the horizon of England in the Elizabethan age marked, namely, great creative power; and that eminently is the product of Protestantism. To it we owe our great thinkers and writers. Had not the Reformation gone before, Bacon would never have opened the path to true science; Shakespeare's mighty voice would have been dumb for ever; Milton would never have written his epic; nor would John Bunyan have told us his dream; Newton would never have discovered the law of gravitation; Barrow would never have reasoned; nor would Taylor, Baxter, Howe, and many more ever have discoursed; not one of these deathless names would have been known to us, nor would England or the world ever have possessed one of their immortal works.


Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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