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some reflections on Christianity in the 1630s

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puritans off to benight the new world

puritans off to benight the new world

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

L P Hartley,  The go-between, 1953

You occasionally read that atheists or non-believers are having a hard time of it these days, and I’ve certainly encountered some Dawkins-haters and ‘arrogant atheist’ bashers, both in person and online. I’ve even had a go at the likes of Terry Eagleton, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Jacobson for their puerile arguments – which I’m really quite fond of doing. But the fact is that we atheists have never had it so good, and it’s getting better all the time.

This post is partly a response to one by the Friendly Atheist, in which he expresses skepticism about a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the worldwide treatment of non-believers, but doesn’t really develop his argument. It’s also partly inspired by a book I’m reading, God’s fury, England’s fire: a new history of the English civil wars, by Michael Braddick, which is extraordinarily detailed and begins with a comprehensive scene-setting, describing the civil and ecclesiastical context in which ordinary lives were lived in England circa 380 years ago.

I’ve written before about taking the long view. We tend to be impatient, understandably, for our lives are short, and we’re keen to see worldwide transformation within its span, but I invite you to travel back in time to another country, our ‘mother country’, or mine at least, to see for yourself how foreign, and how hostile to non-belief, it was back then.

Essentially, there were no atheists in Britain in the 1630s, and the way Christianity was practiced was a hot political issue, central to most people’s lives. Sunday church attendance was compulsory, subject to government fines, but there was a plurality of positions within both Protestantism and the more or less outlawed Catholicism. Due to the horrific religious wars then raging in the Germanic regions, there was more than a whiff of the Last Days in the air. Parishes often took up collections for the distressed Protestants of Europe, and although the government of Charles I maintained an uneasy neutrality, many volunteers, especially from Scotland, went off to join the fighting on the continent.

Braddick’s book begins with an event that underlines the everyday religiosity of the era. In 1640, a Scottish army passed solemnly through Flodden, just south of the border with England. It wasn’t an invasion, though, it was more like a funeral procession. The Scots were engaging in a very public mourning of ‘the death of the Bible’. Trumpeters death-marched in front, followed by religious ministers bearing a Bible covered by a funeral shroud. After them came a number of elderly citizens, petitions in hand, and then the troops, their pikes trailing in the ground. Everyone was wearing black ribbons or other signs of mourning.

This was not quite an official Scottish army, it was an army of the Covenanters, essentially Calvinists or Presbyterians, defenders of the ‘true religion’, who were protesting about the imposition, in 1637, of a new Prayer book upon their congregations. Considering the history of Scots-English warfare, this was a provocative incursion, but the Scots met with little resistance, and after a brief battle at Newburn, they marched into Newcastle, a major northern English town, unopposed.

To understand how this bizarre event could’ve occurred involves analysing the complex religious politics of Britain at a time when religion and politics were almost impossible to separate – as any analysis of the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War would show. The fact is that many of the English were sympathetic to the Scots cause and becoming increasingly disgruntled at the government of Charles, the long proroguing of parliament, and the perceived turning away from the ‘true religion’ towards a more embellished form that resembled the dreaded ‘papism’.

England and Scotland were both governed by Charles I, a nominally Scots king who, since moving to London to join his father as a young child in 1604, had never been back to his native country. However, as is still the case today, the two countries perceived themselves as, and in fact were, quite distinct, with separate churches, laws, administration and institutions. The Covenanters, were in a sense, nationalists, though their attitude to Charles was, unsurprisingly, ambivalent. In a propaganda campaign preceding their march south, they generally made it clear that they had no quarrel with England (though some went further and hoped to ‘rescue’ England from religious error), but were acting to defend their religious liberty.

Charles and his advisers were naturally alarmed at this development, and a proclamation was issued describing the Covenanters as ‘rebels and traitors’. At the same time it was felt that Charles’ physical presence, if not in Scotland at least in the north of England, was needed to stop the traitorous rot. Charles’ attitude was that if he was to enter ‘foreign territory’, it had better be at the head of an army. However, to raise and arm a military force required money, which required taxation – usually sanctioned by parliament. It also required the goodwill of the people, from whom a force would have to be raised, and here’s where politics, bureaucratic administration and religious attitudes could combine to create a dangerous brew, a brew made more poisonous by the king’s unbending temperament.

Charles was married to a Catholic, the not-so popular Henrietta Maria of France. Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism was devout, public and extravagant. The famous architect Inigo Jones designed a chapel for her in a style that outraged the puritans, and she held her own court at which Catholics were welcomed and protected. Charles’ own tastes, too, were hardly in line with the move towards austere Protestantism that was sweeping the country (though there were plenty who resisted it). Charles had in fact been moving in the opposite direction since his accession to the throne in the 1620s, as had his father James I. It wasn’t that they were about to embrace Catholicism, but they were reacting against strict Calvinism, in terms of outward display if not in terms of theology. But in many ways it was the theology of Calvinism – not only the weird doctrine of predestinarianism but the ideas of justification by faith alone, and of a direct, unmediated connection with the deity – that attracted the populace, to varying degrees, though it never caught on as strongly in England as in Scotland. The term ‘popery’, which didn’t always refer in an uncomplicated way to Catholicism, was increasingly used to indicate suspect if not heretical tendencies.

A key figure in all this turmoil was William Laud, the most influential religious authority in England. He was the Bishop of London from 1628, and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. It was Laud who was largely responsible for issuing the new prayer-book in 1637, along with many other reforms in line with Charles’ more formal approach to Protestant religious practice, an approach that later became known as High Church Anglicanism. But so much was at stake with even the mildest reforms, and by the end of the thirties, a wave of puritan hysteria was gripping the country, which created an equal and opposite reaction. Laud was arrested and imprisoned in the tower in 1641, and executed in 1645, by which time the civil war was in full swing, with the tide having turned decisively against Charles.

However, I don’t want to get into the details of the religious factionalism and strife of those days here, I’m simply wanting to emphasise just how religious – and barbaric – those days were. The civil war was horrifically brutal, and as the primary documents reveal, it was accompanied by wagonloads of biblical rhetoric and god-invocations on both sides. The royalists’ principal argument was the king’s divine right to rule, while parliament was always referred to as ‘God’s own’. It was theocracy in turmoil, though many of the points of discontent were decidedly worldly, such as taxation and what we would now call conscription – forced service in the the king’s military. Besides monitoring of church attendance there were the ‘Holy Days of Obligation’ such as Ascension Day and the Rogation Days surrounding it, when the bounds of the parish were marked out on foot – and sometimes by boat if it was a seaside parish – so that jurisdictions were imprinted in the minds of God’s subjects, for in those days the local church had control and responsibility over the care of the poor, elderly and infirm. Certainly in those days the church acted as a kind of social glue, keeping communities together, but it was never as idyllic and harmonious as it sounds. Rogation processions were often proscribed or limited to ‘respectable citizens’ because of the drunken revelry they attracted, and there were always the political dissensions, usually related to some church leader or other being too popish or too puritan. Just like today, it was a world of noisy, opinionated, half-informed people, some of them very clever and frustrated, who demanded to be heard.

Witchcraft, though, was very much a thing in this period. Recently a workmate was expressing understandable disgust at the brutish burning of infidels or traitors or whatever by the Sunni invaders of northern Iraq – and she might also have mentioned the brutish slaughter of women and children as ‘witches’ on our own doorstep in Papua New Guinea. When I mentioned that our culture, too, used to burn witches, the response was predictable – ‘but that was in the Middle Ages’. We like to push these atrocities back in time as far we can get away with. In fact, the largest witch-hunt in English history occurred in East Anglia in 1645, when 36 women were put on trial, 19 were executed and only one was acquitted. Like an earthquake, this mass trial caused a number of aftershocks throughout the country, with some 250 women tried and more than 100 executed. A large proportion of all the witch-killings in England occurred in this one year. These women were hanged rather than burnt, but burning at the stake – the punishment reserved for heresy, an indication of how theocratic the state was – wasn’t abandoned until 1676, under Charles II.

We should be grateful for having emerged from the theocratic thinking of earlier centuries, and we can look around at theocratic states today, or just at those with theocratic mindsets, to see how damaging they can be. To have gods on your side is to be absolutely right, fighting against or punishing the absolutely wrong. In this superhuman world with its superhuman stakes, the mere human is a cypher to be trampled in the dust, or burned, beheaded, sacrificed on the altar of Divine Justice. The past, our past, is another country, but we need to visit it from time to time, and examine it unflinchingly, though it’s sometimes hard not to shudder.

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Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm

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  1. […] Source: some reflections on Christianity in the 1630s […]


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