The first secularists: Puritans, Separatists and Baptists   1 comment

January 2015 Preface:

I first published this blogpost in April 2012, but have decided to re-publish it because of the number of times I have heard ‘secularism’ as a term misused over the last few days, mainly in response to the tragic events in Paris. ‘Experts’ have been called in to talk about ‘lycité’, and have pointed out that although there is a strict separation of state and church in France, the Catholic church still has a special status in terms of state funding, recognition in ceremonial events and the celebration of ‘holidays’ – not just Christmas and Easter, but also ‘Toussaint’ (‘All Saints’ – a two week school holiday) and ‘Shrovetide’ (‘La Jour des chandleurs!), among others. If France were truly a secular country, they have pointed out, equal preference in funding, ceremonial and celebrations would be given to the main protestant church and to Judaism and Islam. Eid would be made a national holiday, along with Pesach and Hannukah. Plus, there would be equal treatment in the display of religious symbols and dress. The other mistake which people make is to equate ‘secularism’ as practiced and/or advocated in Britain with ‘lycité’ in France. In the first place, secularism in Britain is much older. When Louis XIV got fed up with the Huguenots, he simply expelled them, and many of them settled in Britain, which had been briefly ‘secular’ under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, since there was no established church and each parish could choose the form of protestantism it wanted. By the end of the seventeenth century, although the Church of England had been re-established, there was broad toleration of those who wanted to worship outside it, i.e. who wanted to be separate from the state in matters of religion. The French state broke with the Catholic Church in the Revolution and Reign of Terror, even instigating a purely secular calendar, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century most of the links were restored, though other churches and faiths were ‘tolerated’. In Britain, ‘secularism’ refers to the complete separation of church and state, or ‘disestablishment’ (which happened in Wales a century ago), but Scotland still has a ‘national’ church which has a special relationship with the state and, of course, the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. However, the passing of the ‘Equal Marriage’ Act in 2013 has created a definition of marital status which is at odds with the definition of marriage in canon law and scripture, and this anomaly is already leading to some ‘nonconformist’ churches voluntarily giving up their right to marry couples on behalf of the state. So, in all but ceremonial life, the whole of Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) is a secular state, and there is little difference with France in overall status in reality if not in theory. Secularism therefore is not the equivalent of atheism, and both are multi-cultural liberal democracies in which subjects/ citizens have the rights and responsibilities of freedom of speech and worship.

An Unholy Muddle:

Britain is in a constitutional muddle over Church Schools, House of Lords reform and ‘Gay Marriage’. This muddle is the result of a series of compromises between church and state dating back to the sixteenth century, which have left the state at the centre of religious life in Britain, in the shape of the established Church of England and its supreme governor, HM the Queen, and, by the same token (over on the other side of the coin!) the ‘Church’ at the centre of political life, or at least very close to it, in the shape of the Bishops in the House of Lords. Marriage law is being fought over in a way it can’t be in other ‘Christian’ European countries where there is a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, and a clear separation between church and state. In Hungary, most couples who want to get married in church, a pub, the woods, or wherever, still have to ‘tie the knot’ in front of a civil registrar at some point. In Britain, there is only one ceremony, either in church, or in the registry office, which is both civil and religious. All the original religious words can be left out, but it’s still, effectively, a religious service. But it is secular, just as the church service is. That is, the couple chooses where to have the marriage witnessed, not the church or the state, and that’s an important principle which our forefathers, and foremothers, fought for. We may consider ourselves to be ‘British citizens’ but, in reality, we are ‘subjects’ of the Queen, and while we are free to worship in whatever way we want, or not at all, the English (at least) are still subject to the church, the Church of England, that is, which the Queen was charged with ‘defending’ when she took the coronation oath nearly sixty years ago now. Therefore, the government minister is clearly wrong. The Church does, quite clearly, own the ‘patent’ on marriage, though it now shares this with the state. This situation results from the ultimate failure of the first secularists to achieve a society in which they could worship freely, without interference from the state. These people were the ‘Baptists’, ‘Independents’ and ‘Congregationalists’, later joined by ‘Quakers’ and still later by ‘Methodists’ who formed the ‘free churches’ outside the Church of England.

The first Puritans:

The Elizabethan puritans wanted to reform the church from within, to make it more like Jean Calvin‘s church in Geneva, as part of a ‘Corpus Christianum’, a Christian state. They simply wanted to purify the national church from all the ceremonial remnants, vestiges and vestments of Roman Catholicism. They also questioned whether there was any biblical basis for the authority of bishops over the Church. Some wanted to replace them with a system of elders and synods, with stricter discipline. This became known as Presbyterianism. Elizabeth I resisted these changes and James I hated Presbyterians, threatening to ‘harry them out of the land.’ While many compromised uneasily within the state Church, others eventually left of their own accord, like the Pilgrim Fathers. However, a small group of separatists grew up alongside the main puritan group. They had formed their own independent congregation at Norwich in 1581, withdrawing completely from the Church, which they believed to be so polluted it could not be cleansed from within. The government of their chapel was based on a ‘covenant’, marking the beginning of the ‘Congregationalist’ movement. They were persecuted by the authorities and driven abroad to the Netherlands. The Dutch were tolerant of religious nonconformity, and allowed the English independents refugee status and freedom of worship. It was from Leiden that one of these groups emigrated to New England, via Plymouth, in 1621. Other groups returned to England, led by Thomas Helwys, who, in 1612, founded the first openly ‘Baptist’ church in London, four hundred years ago this week.

The first English Baptists:

Helwys’ group formed the first General or Arminian Baptist Congregation in England at Spitalfields in 1612. Arminianism was a rejection of Calvinist ideas of predestination and ‘God’s Elect’, and the belief that God’s grace is available to all. They practised believers’ baptism as a sign of this.  By 1638, there were also Calvinists in London who practised believers’ baptism, and these became known as ‘Particular Baptists‘. They had grown out of the first independent congregations in the capital, and their understanding of the church as a gathered community led to them professing that only the baptism of believers fitted such a view. Helwys’ group had been much influenced by the Dutch Mennonites, but both the General and Particular Baptist churches developed out of a conscientious search for the true pattern of the ‘apostolic church’ of the New Testament and the first century.

Church, State and New Model Army:

These youthful Baptist churches were soon at the centre of the debate about the relationship between church and  state, or, as they put it then, ‘the magistrate’.  They sought guidance from the scriptures about proper Christian obedience. At the same time, the Presbyterians within the Church of England were growing in strength and becoming more vocal in their opposition to Charles I’s reactionary changes in church worship. They also found their political voice in Parliament, Charles’ dissolution of which and his attempts to impose his new Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Scots, led ultimately to Civil War between the Monarchy and Parliament. Many of the officers in the New Model Army which won the war under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell were drawn from Independent and Baptist congregations, as were the professional, often radical, rank and file. Since it was the ‘New Model’ which effectively won the War for Parliament, their views had to be taken into account in the shaping of church and state without the King and ‘Supreme Governor.’

Grace Abounding:

John Bunyan (1628-88) was one of these poor ‘russet-coated’ soldiers who became a member of an independent congregation in Bedford in 1651. Despairing over his spiritual state for several years, he eventually received assurance of  God’s ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,‘ the title of his first book.  Under Cromwell’s Protectorate the established church continued, but its pulpits were filled with Baptist, Independent and Presbyterian ministers, alongside Protestant Anglicans. Those who still wished to worship separately were allowed to do so, provided they did not disturb the peace. The majority of Baptist ministers continued to serve independent congregations, which achieved the peak of numerical strength and national influence during the Commonwealth period, though even then their strength was being reduced by a drift to more radical ‘sects’ like the Quakers and ‘Fifth Monarchists’, like Vavasour Powell, who openly opposed Cromwell’s rule. Baptist congregations were more ‘quietist’ in manner, claiming their local independence as congregations, free from state interference through the established church.  This did not mean that they thought the local congregation had complete competence to decide in religious matters. That was to be discerned from the reading and preaching of God’s word by ministers ordained in the apostolic succession, in association with the church meeting, its ‘deacons’ and with other churches in each ‘region’. These ‘regional associations’ led to the setting up of a ‘General Assembly’, providing for mutual assistance between the churches. Through this, they also continued to discuss ‘the place of the magistrate’.

By the time of the Restoration of Charles II (1660) there were roughly 300 General and Particular Baptist Churches. The Broadmead Records for Bristol at this time, give graphic accounts of the price of dissent in the years between the Act of Uniformity of 1662 and the Act of Toleration in 1689. Bunyan’s preaching in Bedford soon led to his imprisonment after the Restoration, and he spent much of the next twelve years under lock and key. Following a further spell behind bars in 1676, he wrote his epic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which ‘Christian’ overcomes many hazards, fleeing the ‘City of Destruction’ and the ‘Slough of Despond’ to the foot of the cross, before finally reaching ‘the shining city’. Bunyan’s language is a happy mixture of homespun phrases and echoes of the English Bible. His beliefs come straight from the pages of the Bible, shaped by his own fiercely Independent position, and his book soon became a perennial classic, second in popularity only to the ‘King James’ Bible, and the only other book in many village cottages and humble town dwellings for the next 150 years or more.

Evangelicals and Empire:

Even after Toleration, many Baptist Congregations stuck tenaciously to their local autonomy, and it wasn’t until 1792 that the need to establish a Missionary Society, pioneered by William Carey, also led to the development of denominational organisation.  Carey’s many-sided work in India included Bible translation and production, evangelism, church-planting, education and medical relief, as well as social reform, linguistic and horticultural research. The message of his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation gave British evangelicals a world-wide vision, and revived the churches at home. Of course, all this was achieved before the British Empire and its establishment Anglicans jealously took over the work of ‘civilising’ the Indians, eventually leading to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 and the establishment of ‘the Raj’.

Dissent, Definition and Division:

So, British life and culture owes much to these early secularists, who achieved so much in the face of prejudice and persecution. Their ‘Dissent’ was creative, not simply iconoclastic. The atheistic secularists four hundred years later might do well to examine their consciences before they cause further division and destruction to the shared, independent values of the majority of British people, even if these people are largely unaware of the origins of those values.

All of these people should think very hard before they allow the state to interfere again in their right to worship according to their conscience. We may only be, in Quaker terms, witnesses to a marriage ceremony, but even for Quakers, this takes place in a ‘Meeting for Worship’ and in a place of worship. The state cannot insist that churches marry couples against their consciences, which is where the proposed legislation redefining marriage will undoubtedly lead. It is not a question of equality, but it is one of liberty.

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One response to “The first secularists: Puritans, Separatists and Baptists

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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