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The Problem of Social-Political Obligation for the Church of England in the Seventeenth Century

  • Richard Harvey (a1)


Much has been written on the political behavior of the Stuart Church of England. And much too has been written on its monotonous reiteration of the divine right of kings' doctrine—with its ancillary ideas of passive obedience and non-resistance to the commands of authority. Indeed, for this perspective on the institution there exists abundant evidence: seventeenth century sermons and treatises were filled with “church politics.” Morever, Figgis' study remains indispensable: before, and perhaps even more clearly and vehemently after the Puritan Revolution, insistence on absolute obedience to existing authority—especially to the king—reverberated in the parish churches of England. Thus, at this point in time little doubt exists as to the political attitudes of clerics; and indeed a consensus exists also on the probable motives for those clerical attitudes: they followed unavoidably upon the second great conquest in English history, the conquest of the church by Henry VIII. But the church was not unwillingly conquered: it both bound itself and was bound to the destiny of the monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—its newly-granted constitutional legality protected it while it nourished the hope that the Crown would act as sponsor of reform in Christian society. In a word, the institution of the church, keenly aware of both its relative impotence and its relative strength with regard to the monarchy, made the best of circumstances by offering virtually unqualified support to Stuart kingship, with certain unintended consequences for the church. Given this perspective, it is easy to understand why, apart from special problems and issues, the thought of Anglican clerics commands little attention today. But perhaps another view of clerical thought will yield as much or more understanding than the traditional perspective has so far yielded: it is the purpose of this essay to offer another view.



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1. The names of Robert S. Bosher, Norman Sykes, Charles F. Mullett, Christopher Hill, Gerald Straka, Edward F. Carpenter, G. R. Cragg, and A. T. Hart are familiar to students of the Stuart Church.

and more recently, W. H. Greenleaf and Peter Laslett, have enlarged significantly our understanding of traditional views of authority.

2. Figgis, John Neville, The Divine Right of Kings (New York: Harper and Row, 1965),

3. Sir Maurice Powicke and A. G. Dickens best represent these two perspectives on the English Reformation. Compare a statement made by Thomas Sprat in 1682: “… the great Establishment, and Strength of the Church of England, is the protection of the Crown, and the stability of our Civil Government, and Laws. And thus far we confess, ours is a State-Religion: Our Church was Reform 'd by authority of the State: and above all its enemies, it best provides for the security of the State.” Sprat, Thomas, A Sermon Preached (London, 1682), 41.

4. Nigel Harris recently offered this perceptive comment on the relationship between religious institutions and political institutions: “… the association of a doctrine with the maintenance of authority tends to rob the doctrine of its original authority. In religious terms, the identification of a doctrine of salvation with an authority which permits little or no salvation, emasculates the doctrine…” Harris, Nigel, Beliefs in Society: The Problem of Ideology (London: C. A. Watts and Co. Ltd., 1968), 97.

5. What follows is an hypothesis suggested by the views of Blitzer, Charles (ed.), The Commonwealth of England: Documents of the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1641–1660 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963), xiii–xxv; and by the views of Russell, Conrad, “Arguments for Religions Unity in England, 1530–1650,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 18 (10, 1967), 201226. My debt to A. O. Lovejoy, J. Winny, and E. M. W. Tillyard will be obvious.

6. The older studies of J. W. Allen and J. W. Gough, while still eminently useful, have been supplemented and to some extent modified by Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962); Greenleaf, W. H., Order, Empiricism, and Politics: Two Traditions of English Politica1 Thought, 1500–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964); Laslett's, Peter editions of Patriarcha and other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer (Oxford: Blackwell's, 1949) and Locke's, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960); McPherson, Thomas, Political Obligation (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967); and Zagorin, Perez, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954).

7. Myth is here used to indicate any ideal of a society in the past, on which there was a broad consensus of belief, and whose critical function it was—viewed in retrospect—to illuminate and to order a specific facet of social life.

8. Laslett, Peter, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (New York: Charles Seribner's Sons, 1965), Chapter 8.

9. Blitzer, xx.

10. This was merely given express formulation by the 1555 principle of cuius regio, eius religio.

11. I refer to the integrative myths of hierarchy and single religious authority.

12. See Stone, Lawrence, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Hexter, J. H., “The English Aristocracy, Its Crises, and the English Revolution, 1558–1660,” Journal of British Studies, 8 (11, 1968), 2278; Walzer, Michael, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965); West, J. F., The Great Intellectual Revolution (New York: The Citadel Press, 1966); Cragg, G. R., From Puritanism to the Age cf Reason: A Study of Changes in Religious Thought within the Church of England, 1660–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966); and Hill, Christopher, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).

13. Each persuasion recognized the dangers of division: for example, “divisions, whether they be ecclesiastical or political, in kingdoms, cities, or families, are infallible causes of ruin to kingdoms, cities or families.” Calamy, , Sermon before the House of Commons, 25 12 1644, as quoted in Cragg, 195.

14. Traditionally, conscience had inclined men to heed and to respect the principles of the social structure; but the novel conception of conscience as individualist could issue only in anarchy: “… everyone would plead conscience to be freed from the Law, and how is it possible infallibly to distinguish the reality from the pretence [genuine conscience from self-interested, conniving conscienee]” Browne, Philip, The Sovereign's Authority (London, 1682), 24.

15. For a clerical statement which attempted to identify all the sources of instability in English society, see The Judgment and Decree of the University of Oxford Past in their Convocation July 12, 1683, Against certain Pernicious Books and Damnable Doctrines Destructive to the Sacred Persons of Princes, their State and Government, and of all Humane Society, Rendered into English, and Published by Command (Oxford, 1683).

16. The best introduction to this subject is Cragg, G. R., From Puritanism to the Age of Reason: A Study of Changes in Religious Thought within the Church of England, 1660–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966).

17. The Catechism of the Church of England contained the traditional teaching:

Quest. Which is the fifth commandment?

Answ. The fifth commandment is, Honor thy Father and thy Mother: which is the first commandment with promise, and concerns the mutual Duties of Inferiours and Superiours.

Quest. What is the duty of Inferious to Superiours?

Answ. The Duty of Inferiours to Suporiours is, to give them Honor; by which is meant Fear, Reverence, Obedience, and Maintenance.

Quest. What mean you by Father and Mother?

Answ. By Father and Mother I mean, not only natural Parents, but also Governors in State, Church and private Families.

Quest. What is the duty of Superiours to Inferiours?

Answ. The Duty of Superiours to Inferiours is, to Govern, Protect, Sustain, and Instruct them. The Catechism Set Forth in the Book of Common Prayer, Briefly explained by short Notes, grounded upon Holy Scripture, 7th ed. (Oxford, 1686), 72.

18. A hyper-cynical view: “The parish, of which the Church was the pictorial center, did not exist to provide service for the inhabitants, but to enforce obedience to the government and to preserve the form of society then in existence. This function it performed with that mixture of cunning and efficiency, hypocrisy and peace, which appears in our most flourishing periods to be the hall-mark of the English ruling- classes.” Morley, I., A Thousand Lives: An Account of the English Revolutionary Movement, 1660–1685 (London: A. Deutsch, 1954), 7374.

19. Much mention was made of the fact that “Bonds of Restraint” had broken, and that men believed themselves free “to do what was Right in [their] own Eyes.” Wray, William, The Rebellious City Destroyed (London, 1682), 28.

20. “And the truth is, the late times of confusion, in which the heights and refinements of religion were professed in conjunction with the practise of the most execrable viilanies that were ever acted upon the earth; and the weakness of our church discipline since its restauration, whereby it has been scarce able to get any hold on men's consciences, and much less able to keep it; and the great prevalence of that atheistical doctrine of the Leviathan, and the unhappy propagation of Erastianism; these things, I say, with some others, have been the sad and fatal causes that have loosed the bands of conscience, and eaten out the very heart and sense of Christianity amongst us, to that degree that there is now scarce any religious tie or restraint upon persons, but merely from those faint reminders of natural conscience, which God will be sure to keep alive upon the hearts of men, as long as they are men, for the great ends of his own providence, whether they will or no.” South, Robert, Sermons Preached upon Several Occasions (Oxford, 1842), I, 182.

21. Raab, Felix, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500–1700 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 237 ff.; Bethell, Samuel, The Culturai Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London: Dennis Dobson, 1951), passim.

22. “All the miseries of England may be dated from the time that Men began to wax Wanton in their Religion: for then did they become Immoral, Loose, and Debauched in their Lives: Heresy, Schism, and Factions in the Church; and Sedition, Privy-Conspiracy in the State, are but Gemini Fratres, which come into the world at one and the same time.” Kingston, B., Vivat Rex: A Sermon Preached (London, 1682), 44.

23. Baldly stated, men “…by breaking the Bonds of Religion, and casting away its Cords from them, do destroy all Society…” Wensley, Robert, The Present Miseries (London, 1682), 6.

24. Goodman, Joseph, A Sermon Preached (London, 1685), 7.

25. Hesketh, Henry, A Sermon Preached (London, 1684), 30.

26. Payne, William, The Unlawfulness of Stretching Forth the Hand to Resist or Murder Princes (London, 1683), 2.

27. “Never almost was there any great Sedition, Mutiny, or Rebellion contrived, or brought to any fortunate Success, but by men pretending to greater zeal for, and Care of God's Honor, and Love to Religion, and hatred of Errors and Abuses, and concern for the People's Good, and for preserving their just Rights, than other men; tho' all this while they secretly intend the enslaving of them, and overturning all Law and Order…” Calamy, Benjamin, A Sermon Preached (London, 1683), 27.

28. The existence of a crisis in social obligation is sharply revealed in yet another way: surely the fact that clergymen felt compelled to make explicit attitudes and principles the truth of which had been for so long assumed attests to their awareness that something had slipped.

29. Those ideas, of course, had immediate sources in the Civil War-Revolution experience and in the Whig party experience of the 1670s and 1680s. See Jones, J. B., The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth Century Commowivealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstances of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959); and Behrens, B., “The Whig Theory of the Constitution in the Reign of Charles II,” Cambridge Historical Journal, 7 (1945), 4271.

30. Fuller, Samuel, A Sermon Preached (London, 1682), 16.

31. The uniform quality of historical experience had its sources in Genesis: “But to us that have a rational and infallible Account of the Creation and Peopling of the World, nothing [i.e., the contractarian vision of the state of nature] surely can be more absurd.” Forster, Richard, Prerogative and Privilege Represented in a Sermon (London, 1684), 19.

32. The competition for men's minds between, simply stated, tradition and reason, was fully revealed by the diversity of arguments used, and allegedly used by each “party”: “So many difficulties, inconveniences, and absurdities doth this doctrine of the People's having the Supreme Power carry in itself, and yet so bewitched are some Men with it, as to swallow it down, without examination, as if it were self-evident, or had been attested with Divine Miracles, tho’ it really be as contrary to the Christian Religion and to right Reason, especially arguing from the Mosacial account of Mankinds' original, as Darkness is to Light.” Hickes, George, The Harmony of Divinity and Law (London, 1684), 18.

33. Foreness, E., A Sermon Preached (London, 1683), 1314.

34. Paul Lathom articulated what may have been the most cogent of all arguments at the time: “Go first and set up that Government [republican] in thy own Family, see how thou wilt like a Coordinate Power in thy children and Servants, and mark if thy business go well on them.” Lathom, Paul, The Power of Kings (London, 1683), 20.

35. Pomfret, Thomas, Passive Obedience Stated and Asserted, In a Sermon (London, 1683), 1314. Hobbes was not mentioned.

36. Williams, George Hunston, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), passim.

37. Browne, , The Sovereign's Authority, 2.

38. Moore, John, A Sermon Preached (London, 1682), 1213.

39. Beyond suggesting that the source of religious disunity was to be found in the sin of pride against the social-religious order, clergymen eschewed consideration of the causes of disunity and dealt mainly with the fact of its existence and its social consequences.

40. [It is evident] That this Pragmatical Temper [indifference to or contempt for tradition and religion] is highly injurious to the Divine Providence, and Government of the World; wholly inconsistent with all necessary Order, and directly tending to obstruct the Peace and General Benefit of Mankind, and to introduce the utter Ruin and Dissolution of all Humane Society.” Pearson, Richard, The Study of Quietness Explained, Recommended, and Directed, In a Sermon (London, 1684), 38.

41. Hickes, George, A Sermon Preached (London, 1684), 7.

42. Pittis, Thomas, A Spittle Sermon (London, 1684), 8.

43. Pearson, 29.

44. Pearson, 35.

45. “Inferiors have no right to meddle with Superiors at all, unless it be to defend, and obey: nothing else, not so much as to counsel unless call 'd to it: much less to reprove saucily, or contumaciously to expose. Nor Authority over their Equals. Nor any men Anything to do out of their Calling. All this is plainly Reason, more manifest by Scripture…” Ironside, Gilbert, A Sermon Preached (London, 1685), 28.

46. Claggett, Nicholas, A Persuasive to Peaceableness and Obedience: Seasonable and proper for these Times: Being a Sermon (London, 1683), 42.

47. For a stimulating recent introduction to the question of political stability, see Plumb, J. H., The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675–1725 (London: Macmillan, 1967).

48. For the view that Restoration clergymen sought to assimilate emergent capitalist values into the traditional value structure, see Schlatter, Richard B., The Social Ideas of Religious Leaders, 1660–1688 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940). For recent hypotheses on social change during the Restoration, see Stone, Lawrence, “Social Mobility in England, 1500–1700,” Past and Present (April, 1966), 1655; Everitt, Alan, “Social Mobility in Early Modern England,” Past and Present (April, 1966), 5673; and SirClark, George, Three Aspects of Stuart England (London: Oxford University Press, 1960).

49. Not only did the Church of England surrender the principle of religious uniformity in1689—an important shift—but distinctly revolutionary was its abandonment as weU of strict hereditary succession and divine right of kings' doctrine. See Straka, Gerald, The Anglican Reaction to the Revolution of 1688 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962), passim; and especially Godfrey Davies' account of how James II alienated Anglican clergymen: Davies, Godfrey, Essays on the Later Stuarts (SanMarino: The Huntington Library, 1958), 4189.


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