Faith in Focus

The Millennium and its significance for the English Church (part 2)


In our last issue, we discussed the growing interest in the English Church in eschatology (end-time views) in the light of the book or Revelation or Apocalypse.

Paul Christianson writes in his English Protestant apocalyptic visions, that by the 1630s, "An apocalyptic interpretation of the Reformation was embedded in the presuppositions and thoughts of members of the church of England." (236)

With the ascendancy of the Archbishop Laud and the reign of Charles the first, the return to ritualism, only reinforced the Puritan view that the Antichrist had not yet finished with the church.  Laud still accepted that the Roman Catholic Church was a true church.  The high church would not identify the Pope with the Antichrist.

The Laudians also undermined the Puritan view that a godly Prince had a responsibility to reform the church, which was an idea they inherited from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Acts and Monuments.  It was at this time, when a number fled to Holland including those later to be Westminster divines, Thomas Goodwin and William Bridge.  Others, of course, went to New England, to a new land of comparative freedom.


The slaughter of the Witnesses of Rev. 11.

Mede’s Chiliasm or Millenarianism, which promised a temporal reign of the Saints was an important component in the later Fifth Monarchy movement and other apocalyptic radicals from the 1640s. But in spite of the Laudian attempts to suppress the Puritan apocalyptic vision, three important figures stayed behind to oppose Laud. Henry Burton, William Prynne and John Bestwick, published and promoted the idea that Reformation was still needed in the English Church, together with the responsibility that rested on the people, Parliament and King. Burton, for example, had in his book Seven Vials, concluded that Brightman had mistakenly set the battle of Armageddon at Geneva (132-134). No, it would take place in England. Moreover, Burton in his sermons, began to identify Bishops from the English Protestant Church with the Antichrist. Burton now saw a corrupt English Episcopacy as in league with Rome itself. Burton and Prynne both wrote at considerable length denouncing Episcopacy and as a result of their imprisonment and torture, their denunciation of the High Church Bishops stressed that the cosmic battle between antichrist and the saints was very much in evidence in their own native land.


Scottish reactions

Just when Laudian policy seemed to have the upper hand, symbolised in the “et cetera” oath, an oath accepting episcopacy (Church Government by Bishops), Charles I and his Bishops made the fatal mistake in 1637 of trying to force the Scots to use a new prayer book. Although there were other policies of the King which aggravated the ordinary Scots and the nobles, this attempt to impose a Scottish version of the Prayer book was bound to be incendiary. In the lead-up to this decision, the Scots were afflicted with a variety of irritations. Young Bishops with Arminian ideas seemed to be officially approved. Samuel Rutherford, destined to become a Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, experienced the power of the Arminian prelacy, when he was banished to Aberdeen because of his attack on Arminianism and his opposition to the Articles of Perth. Rumours abounded, however unlikely, that Charles was endeavouring to reconcile the Scottish Church with both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. A new set of canons (rules), affecting ministers was introduced in 1636, excluding mention of Presbyteries or Sessions. The ordinance of prayer, too, was affected. Extemporary prayer was outlawed, and a  licence from a Bishop was required before a minister could preach, adding further fuel to the fire. For the Scots, a minister who didn’t preach was a contradiction in terms. After the order was given through the Privy council to introduce the Prayer book, both the manner of its composition, (excluding any input from Scottish ministers or laymen) and the manner of its imposition, preordained its rejection in Scotland. The concept itself of an enforced liturgy was unlikely to impress the Scots of Presbyterian sympathy. The King’s intransigence made a collision between two totally different religious ideals inevitable. Although Charles might be justly charged with political naivety, it was his arrogance, stemming from his belief in the divine right of Kings, that was to ensure his ultimate fall.

On the Sunday the 23rd of July 1637 an attempt was made by the Dean before a large congregation to read from the prayer book. Initially women, and then others, firstly protested verbally and then began to throw stools in protest. The Bishop himself was stoned as he left the Kirk. The riotous parishioners wanted the blood of the Dean, who rather wisely locked himself in the steeple out of harms way. After a year of uncertainty the King, rejecting petitions from Scotland to withdraw the prayer book, offered to forgive those who had offended, but events were now proceeding that would ultimately ensure the defeat of episcopacy in Scotland. Johnson of Wariston and Alexander Henderson, both to be Scottish Commissioners to the later Westminster Assembly, drafted a Covenant which was first signed in Greyfriars Kirk on February the 28th 1638. The covenant included the 1581 Scots Confession, acts of Parliament  against Roman Catholicism and the covenant itself which bound the Covenanters to resist innovations and defend “the true religion.” The Covenanters also bound themselves to respect a godly King’s authority, with the implication that an ungodly King could be resisted, especially if he sought to overthrow the true religion. The King had sent his commissioner, the Marquis of Hamilton, to ostensibly negotiate with the Scots. In the meantime the King was shifting military supplies to his castles in Scotland in preparation to crush the Covenanters. An assembly was called by the King in order to sign the earlier 1560 Confession of Faith, and a statement binding the Covenanters to accept the King’s authority. The Church Assembly did meet, but refused direction by Hamilton the King’s commissioner and outlawed episcopacy. In their actions they were clearly opposing the King’s will and authority. As both parties prepared for war, the Scots appealed to the English Parliament, asking that the situation be discussed by the English. Here too the Scots are now bypassing the King. Alexander Henderson was also called upon by the Scots to write a paper justifying disobedience to the King, which he promptly did. Soon, in the last days of 1639, the King and Scotland were technically at war. In reality the King was unable to muster the size of army he sought in England. In April of 1640 an incursion by the English was thwarted. Fearing the defeat of his army Charles agreed to negotiate peace. Nevertheless small skirmishes broke out in Scotland, with those loyal to the King attempting to take on the Covenanters. Under threat of military embarrassment, the King was forced to sign a treaty with the Covenantors, giving them most of their demands, although there is some dispute as to who did better in the negotiations.

Other abortive attempts by the King to solve the Scottish problem ended in a second “Bishop’s war.” But the fact that radical Scottish ministers also had an apocalyptic vision, little different than the puritan radicals of their Southern neighbour, also played a part in their martial attempts to preserve the “true religion.”


Returning exiles

Back in England, the three prisoners, Bastwick, Burton and Prynne were released during the sitting of the “long” Parliament in 1640 and returned triumphantly to London.  Soon to be a Westminster divine, John De la March, minister of a French congregation in London, identified Burton’s return as a fulfilment of Rev. 19:1. This was the praise of saints at the downfall of Babylon. Exiles returned from the Netherlands and New England, Laud was imprisoned, and indeed it seemed to many, that God was about to do marvellous things in England. And yet there were events which seemed to contradict cause for optimism. A Rebellion erupted in Ireland and royalists, who were also supporters of Episcopacy, became more vocal. Society was being polarised in England toward either the King or Parliament.

The Parliamentarians turned to the Church to give them spiritual counsel.  From 1640, sermons were being preached in Parliament, a convention which would be regulated as Monthly fast sermons by 1642. The House of Lord’s following suit in 1644. These sermons were not all thematically apocalyptic, but many were.  Next issue we will look at the tentative victory of the Puritan apocalyptic understanding and the disillusionment, which followed.





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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised May 2000 / Copyright 2000