The English Reformation had some unique features all its own. The politics was unique, starting with the fact that Britain was an island ruled by only two nations, which would become one in the time of James I. Instead of many competing princes and nobles, there was essentially one court and one king in England.
The leadership was unique. There are more 'names' packed together in the small English reformation. Tyndale, Frith, Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, Henry VIII, Bucer, Edward VI, Knox, etc. -- it was a Hall of Fame of earth-shaking personages.
The results were unique. The Anglican Church was like no other in its retention of Catholic elements, in its seesaw religion and politics, in its mediating solution, in its Puritan party agitating for the next hundred years. The English Revolution, the beheading of the king -- what element could the story have that it doesn't already?
Of course, the English reformation is also the mother of most of our churches, at least indirectly. Anglicans - obviously. Presbyterians - they wrote the most famous confession of them all right there in Westminster, and took over Scotland. Congregationalists, Separatists, Baptists -- all from England. Modern Evangelicalism comes from the earlier Protestantism purified and shaken up by the Great Awakening, then slapped down by the Second Great Awakening.
Let's hit the high points.
Luther's doctrines entered England early. But the Humanist tradition had been there for some years, since the late 1400's. England's universities, Oxford and Cambridge, had had their elements calling for reform already long before Luther. The study of Greek had also made its way to England. Erasmus had been there, and there were men like Thomas More, John Colet and others who were paving the way for a renewed study of Scripture. The young prince, crowned Henry VIII, awas known to be a friend of learning, and Erasmus had a long correspondence with him.
The Greek New Testament, published by Erasmus in 1516, entered England at almost the same time that Lutheran doctrines did. Just as at Wittenberg, it was to be the universities, especially Cambridge, which proved to the the fount of Reformed doctrines in England.
William Tyndale was born around 1490-94. He seems to have been converted early to Lutheran doctrines. At Cambridge in the late 1510's or early 1520's, he is spreading Protestant principles in Cambridge with a group of like minded students and lecturers who met at the White Horse Inn, especially Thomas Bilney and John Frith.
He left Cambridge to become tutor to the family of Sir John Walsh. At Walsh's house he conceived the idea to translate the Bible directly from the original languages into English. This had never been done; other existing English versions, including Wycliffe's, had been made from the Latin Vulgate. It was also here that Tyndale had the famous conversation with the Catholic theologian who, frustrated by Tyndale's arguments, finally replied that it would be better to be without God's laws than the pope's. Tyndale said, "If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do."
In the meantime Luther's doctrines were infecting the country with "heresies." Henry, with his unscrupulous advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, was persecuting and killing all the Protestants he could get hold of. He even wrote a book of his own against Luther, which earned him the special title "Defender of the Faith" from the pope. A wonderful source book for these stories is Foxe's Acts and Monuments, more commonly known as Book of Martyrs. If you try to read this book, get the earliest and least edited version you can, because all kinds of books are issued under this title nowadays.
Tyndale meanwhile tried to get appointed to the Bishop of London's staff, and to get the translation of the Bible accomplished under the authority of the Bishop. But the Bishop politely turned him down. A friendly merchant, Humphrey of Monmouth, gave him a place to live and work. He began to work with John Frith on the translation of the New Testament. But England became too hot for them, and they left for the Continent in 1524. The Bible was first printed in Cologne and Worms in 1525. Two editions were sent to England starting in 1526. These editions were siezed, burned, and bought by the minions of Henry and Rome.
Tyndale kept revising and also worked on the Old Testament until he was betrayed and captured in Antwerp. He was burned in Vilvorde in 1536. His last prayer was "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." One year later, Bibles were being sold legally in England.
Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Perhaps we don't know why, but it was quite noticeable that wife Catherine was producing no male heirs. Only one daughter after almost 20 years of marriage. In 1527 Henry began to pursue a divorce or annulment of his marriage -- a marriage that had had to have a papal dispensation to legalize -- from the pope. This was not a good time. Catherine was the emperor Charles's aunt, and the pope was under the thumb of Charles. No divorce was forthcoming. Henry decided that the marriage was not legal on the basis of Leviticus 20:21, "If there is a man who takes his brother's wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness. They shall be childless." Never mind that this probably refers to taking one's brother's wife while the brother is still living; and never mind that Deut. 5:5 specifically commands a man to take his dead brother's wife.
Henry had advisors who were trying to do his bidding too. In August 1529 he met Thomas Cranmer, a member of the Cambridge circle which had included Tyndale. Cranmer suggested that the proposed divorce was legitimate and outlined various ways of handling it. Henry pressed him into service on the divorce case, and soon Cranmer was a close advisor.
One thing led to the other, and soon Henry was denying the pope, whom he now called the mere "bishop of Rome," any authority over the English church. He began to derive a doctrine of national churches that remained Catholic but were independent of each other and especially of the pope.
Henry's "reformation" can be conveniently summarized by listing the activities and decrees that proclaimed its various aspects:
One thing is sure - there is nothing in Henry's religion that resembles Protestantism. However, Protestantism swirled all around him. Cranmer, Latimer, and others within Henry's circle began to circulate Protestant doctrines, especially after Henry's death in 1547. The court of Edward VI, who became king when he was 10, was controlled by Protestants in the doctrinal sense. The religious convictions of the true early reformers like Tyndale began to percolate through the English church.
What we may call an actual Protestant Reformation took place in England under Edward VI. Only ten when he took the throne, under the thumb of powerful advisors the Duke of Somerset and later the Duke of Northumberland, he seems to have been personally devoted to Protestant doctrines himself. But his advisors wielded the more power, and they were determined to make the English church a Protestant church.
Advisers and theologians were now invited from the continent to aid in the English reformation. Most important of these was Martin Bucer, South German reformer and friend of Calvin. English Protestantism began to take a definite shape, and that shape was Calvinism.
Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and its second, more Protestant, edition in 1552. This book, a classic of the English language and English faith, had a great influence down to the present day. For instance, some of my very favorite Psalm verses are the ones in Handel's Messiah, but in the Psalms Handel used the Psalter printed in the Prayer Book rather than the Authorized Version.
Cranmer issued the Forty-Two Articles of the Church of England in 1553. These later became the Thirty-Nine Articles under Elizabeth. They were strongly Protestant and remain in effect for Anglican churches, though they are widely ignored.
Unfortunately, Edward died an untimely death from tuberculosis. His half sister Mary, daughter of the original wife, Catherine of Aragon, took the throne. She hated both Protestantism and the reformed English church which had cast out her mother. She determined to reverse everything that had been done by Henry and Edward.
Mary imprisoned and burned many of the leading Reformers, including Cranmer, Latimer, Bradford, Ridley, and Hooper were burned. Cranmer's martyrdom was interesting because under duress, he recanted Protestantism. But on the day of his burning, he apologized publicly for the recantation, and declared that his right hand which was signed the recantation, would suffer first. He held the hand in the fire until it burned up.
When Latimer and Ridley were burned, Latimer's famous line according to Foxe, was "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
Elizabeth took over when Mary died in 1558. She became Elizabeth I, "Good Queen Bess," and reigned until 1603. Under her the greatness of England began in European affairs.
She was a Protestant, although her inner convictions are not well known. She seems to have believed in moderation in all things religious. Under her, the Edwardean Book of Common Prayer was brought back, somewhat revised. The 42 Articles of religion were passed again as the 39 Articles. These contained mostly continental Calvinism, but the church she established, which now became stable as the Church of England, was a patchwork of different doctrines and practices. Just enough Catholicism was left in the mix to encourage the later Anglo-Catholics (19th century) to reinterpret, with some success, the English church as simply a Catholic church separate from the Pope. This became the High Church movement, as opposed to the Low Church, i.e. more Protestant, Anglicans.
Elizabeth executed, but rarely burned, Catholic agitators and Jesuit missionaries during her reign. In this she was a little more justified than some Protestant leaders, for there was always the suspicion that conspiracies existed to depriver her of her throne and bring England back to Roman obedience.
All these conspiracies came to a head in the 1580's, when Mary Queen of Scots was finally executed by Elizabeth for plotting against her, and in 1588 Philip, the Catholic king of Spain, attacked England with his armada. 130 ships and 24,000 men were sent. But the Armada was spectacularly defeated with the help of providential winds, and the air went out of Spain's sails, so to speak. Spain's long decline began, and England's rise to greatness coincided with it. With England's power went Protestant power, around the world.
By the Act of Supremacy in 1559, Elizabeth repealed Mary's efforts to reestablish Roman Catholicism. By the Act of Uniformity the same year, Anglicanism was reaffirmed, taking features from both Henry VIII's and Edward VI's reigns. As Grimm says, "Clerical vestments, pictures, crucifixes, and church music were retained . . .". Many Protestants thought that the reformation should go further. These became the Puritan party, of which we shall see more next week. In Elizabeth's time, the House of Commons was almost always more Protestant than the Queen. The Puritans were persecuted in various ways, e.g. being forbidden to preach and being deprived of their official positions.
It was late in Elizabeth's reign that Richard Hooker wrote the classic defense of Anglicanism, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It was a learned and moderate book.
The Scottish Reformation was a totally different story than the English, and it has great impact on us as Americans. The Scotch-Irish who settled Northern Ireland were fiercely Protestant as a result of their Reformation heritage, and they became an important part of the American immigration.
Remember that at this time the government of Scotland was not united with that of England. Rather, the Scottish kings were a separate line, dominated by the French. Although James VI of Scotland ended up being the heir to the English throne, in the Reformation period they were two nations.
James V of Scotland, who had persecuted some Protestants, had died in 1542, leaving an infant daughter Mary, and her mother, Mary of Guise, a French Catholic, in charge.
We must study Knox if we wish to study Scotland's reformation. Little is known of his early life. By 1540 he was a priest and by 1545 he is an associate of George Wishart, and early reformer who preached Protestantism up and down Scotland. After Cardinal Beaton, a powerful ruler in Scotland, had Wishart burned in 1546, events really sped up. As he died, Wishart exhorted the spectators to teach the bishops the word of God.
But Protestants murdered Beaton and then holed up in St. Andrews Castle. Knox went to them under orders from his nobleman employers, to whose sons he was tutor. By 1547 he had become, reluctantly, the spokesman for the movement.
In June 1547 French armies arrived and the St. Andrews castle had to surrender. Knox and the other leaders became galley slaves in the French fleet. Knox was freed after 19 months by intervention from England, which was now Protestant under the control of Edward VI and his ministers.
Until 1553 Knox was an agent of English Protestantism, like so many other Reformed luminaries who lived in England during this period. He was influential in the 2nd prayer book's insistence that there was no Real Presence in the Lord's Supper. In many ways he became the model which English Puritans were to follow for the next hundred years. But in 1553 when Bloody Mary came to the throne, Knox fled England. He spent most of the following years in Geneva, learning from John Calvin.
In 1559 came his last return to Scotland. He was now preaching a doctrine of resistance to Catholic rulers - armed if necessary. Protestant nobles in Scotland were resisting Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and French armies threatened to secure Scotland for Catholicism. Elizabeth of England finally decided that it was to her best interests to aid Scotland's Protestants, and in 1560 her armies were the deciding factor in eliminating the French threat. The Treaty of Edinburgh enabled a committee of Lords to rule Scotland. The Lords moved in a Protestant direction.
Now, under Knox's leadership, papal authority was abolished and the Scots Confession was adopted. The young Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots, or Mary Stuart) arrived from France in 1561 and for many years was in battle royal with Knox. But in 1567, Mary abdicated (after bearing a son, the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England), and Protestantism eventually triumphed through many other tribulations. Knox died in 1572. Mary was executed in 1587 in England after having been convicted of conspiring against Elizabeth I.
More than in other countries, through his efforts the Reformation in Scotland was truly the rising of the commoner. In most other countries, Protestantism was imposed through the conversion of the ruler; in Scotland, it was imposed by the people and their representatives against the will of their rulers. In addition, Protestantism brought education, literacy, and other benefits to the whole country. Scotland had been a much more backward country than most of Europe, but under the Presbyterian system established in the 1600's, Scotsmen became leaders in the United Kingdom in her glory days, and through her, leaders in much of the world's business.
If John Calvin was the inventor of what we now know as Presbyterianism, it was surely Scotland which gave it its character and fleshed out its implications. While buffetted by history during the next hundred years, it gradually established the most pure form of Protestantism (doctrinally speaking, that is) that a national church achieved.
The local church was governed by a Session (i.e. the pastor and the elders). Sessions from several churches in an area were grouped into Presbyteries which met periodically; larger meetings were later called Synods, while the meeting of the leaders of the whole nation was called the National or General Assembly. These structures are still used by Presbyterians today. Discipline was adopted which in some ways went beyond even Geneva. A particularly strong feature of Scottish Presbyterianism (and later English Puritanism) was strict Sabbath observance.
Ultimately the highest literary expression of the faith of Scottish Presbyterians was an English document, the excellent Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and its Catechisms, to which we shall return next week.
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Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.