In 1641, the Congregational minister Thomas Goodwin delivered a series of sermons to his independent church in London, expounding the letter to the Ephesians in characteristically meticulous detail. Goodwin had recently returned to England after a brief but formative period of religious exile in the Netherlands, and as the Sundays passed, his auditors were surely moved by the oratory of a speaker so “blessed with a rich invention and a solid and exact judgment.” The minister's breadth was equally impressive. The sermons opened up a cornucopia of Christian themes, flowing from one topic to the next as Goodwin's capacious mind found stimulus in the scriptural text. Seemingly eager to follow every possible digression, application, and excursus, Goodwin's unhurried pace required thirty-six sermons simply to exhaust the epistle's first chapter. And yet, amid this abundance of subject matter, one issue in particular arrested Goodwin's attention. While delivering his thirty-fifth discourse on Ephesians, Goodwin paused to consider what he described as “the Great question of these times” and, alternatively, “the great Controversy of the times.” By the middle of 1641, Goodwin's world was experiencing an unprecedented upheaval—England had been invaded by Scottish covenanters, the archbishop of Canterbury had been arrested and imprisoned, and the king had been forced to call a parliament he would be unable to dissolve. Yet Goodwin's “great Controversy” turned not upon political or cultural convulsion but rather upon a seemingly obscure point of ecclesiastical polity, a question not often considered by modern historians and even less often fully appreciated: “the great Question of these times,” said Goodwin, was “whether yea or no . . . many congregations, many Churches united in one may not be called one particular Church.” What did this strangely worded question mean to Goodwin and his hearers, and why did the future president of Magdalen College and religious adviser to the Lord Protector deem this rather specific query the very hinge upon which the nation's future turned? To answer these questions, we must consider how the early modern English mind understood the idea of a “national church”—for though he does not explicitly invoke the term, it was, as we will see, a concept embedded at the very center of Goodwin's “great Controversy.”
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