In many of the Puritan portraits shown on our website, it says that many of these men were suspended from their ministry, and/or excommunicated for ‘non-conformity.’ To most Christians today, the matter of conformity and non-conformity are at least unknown, and at best considered to be irrelevant. But the story of the Protestant faith in Great Britain and America is that of men who, for the sake of conscience, guided by Scripture, could not conform to the dictates of their church. And the matters becomes more confusing–at least in our day, and most likely in their own–when we consider that the Church of England at that time was not considered by anyone to be apostate! So we have thousands of godly ministers being suspended from the ministry, stripped of their licenses to preach, and excommunicated by a Christian church, which still believed in justification by faith alone, the deity of Christ, the faithful preaching of the Word, and church discipline.
Some questions surely arise, such as: What were the issues? Why couldn’t they all ‘just get along’? How can we be so impressed with men who were disciplined out of a Christian church? Would we admire a Jeremiah Burroughs as much if we thought of him as a suspended, excommunicated minister? Would we have him in our pulpits today if he were alive? In this essay, we hope to shed some light on some of these questions.
On August 24th, 1572, a dreadful massacre took place. The Huguenots, the French Protestants, were slaughtered by the edict of Charles IX. Thousands were hunted down and shot, or otherwise barbarously destroyed. After this took place, all the princes of Europe expressed their indignation except the King of Spain and the Pope. In Rome, great rejoicing took place, and the messenger who brought the news of the massacre, which came to be remembered as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, was liberally rewarded. The pope went out publicly in a grand procession, performed high mass with all the splendor of his court, and ordered the Te Deum to be sung to celebrate the event. According to Richard Baxter, ‘thirty or forty thousand Protestants perished by religious Roman zeal.’
That same date, August 24th, was chosen by the professedly Protestant rulers of England, 90 years later, to put into force a new ‘Act of Uniformity,’ which was designed to expel great numbers from the church. It is generally acknowledged that over 2,000 godly ministers were expelled from pulpits and lecterns all over England. The demands under which they were placed by the Church of England were such that it left them with a choice: either conform to what they considered to be unbiblical demands, or refuse to conform and accept the penalties and consequences. But these men could not commit perjury; they could not profess to approve what in reality they condemned; they could not adopt what they believed to be false, nor could they abjure what they considered to be true. In their minds, they were placed in a position in which they could submit to man or obey God, and, of course, most of them chose the latter alternative.
It was Henry VIII who denied the supremacy of the Pope of Rome, but by doing so he set himself up as the Pope of England by making his will the standard of religious faith and worship. King Henry disavowed the pope’s authority because he would not annul his marriage. But there remained many ‘popish trappings’ in the worship of the Church of England, and much corruption, which was what the Puritans wanted to ‘purify’ or reform.
When the first English sovereign of the Stuart line ascended the throne as the successor of Elizabeth, though he had been brought up under Scottish presbyterianism, and had professed to regard that as the purest church in the world, it was soon manifest that he was determined to maintain the Episcopal church. The Puritans were told that they were conform to the King and to the Church of England. Unfortunately, when the King is head of the country and the church, to disobey in the church is to disobey the civil magistrate as well.
Some of the issues to which they had been asked to conform revolved around these actual questions:
- Is your communion table so placed within the Chancel as the Canon directs?
- Doth your minister pray for the king using his whole title?
- Doth he receive the sacrament kneeling himself, and administer to none but such as kneel? Doth your minister baptize with the sign of the cross?
- Doth he wear the surplice while he is reading prayers and administering the sacraments?
- Are the graves in the church-yard dug east and west, and the bodies buried with their heads to the west?
- Do your parishioners kneel at confession, stand up at the creed, and bow at the glorious name of Jesus?
The Church of England considered all of these, and over 130 others, to be so essential that absolute conformity to all of them was required. There was no ‘liberty of conscience’ in any of these matters.
Under Archbishop William Laud, non-conformists were sentenced to pay heavy fines, to stand in the pillory, to have their noses slit, their ears cut off, to be branded on the cheeks with hot irons, and to suffer long imprisonments, even unto death. When Cromwell established the Commonwealth, religious liberty was granted to dissenters, and devoted ministers had liberty to preach the gospel and conduct worship in the manner they preferred. But after the death of Cromwell, Charles II drifted towards civil and religious tyranny. Those who advised him determined that those who had ranked as Puritan divines should be cast out of the Church. They decided that there must be full uniformity in the Church, and that a new ‘Act of Uniformity’ should be passed, which required that everyone who ministered must be ordained with Episcopalian orders, no matter what their previous ordination may have been; each minister must give his full and unqualified adhesion to everything in the Book of Common Prayer and Service Book.
This was passed into law by parliament, and all ministers were given until August 24, 1662 to comply, or give up their pulpits and teaching positions in any public institution or school. They would be forbidden to exercise their ministry in any way other than that appointed by the Church of England, and, if they did not conform, would lose the profits of their livings for that year. On that fateful day, over 2000 ministers and teachers either resigned their livings or were ejected by the Church of England for refusing to conform.
There was one great principle prevailing with them all: they ought not to yield obedience to the civil ruler in what they believed to be contrary to the will of Christ. They could not give that subscription to a book of human composition which they believed to be only due to the Word of God, and especially to a book which, in their judgment, contained many things contrary to the teachings of that Word.
They could not renounce their prior ordinations without thereby declaring that those ordinations were invalid. They could not allow themselves to be forced to use, without any liberty of conscience, a number of ceremonies in religious worship, and to wear certain vestments, which they felt savored of superstition and which were relics of Romanism.
Philip Henry, father of the famous Matthew Henry, stated that he could not submit to re-ordination, which was done by ‘the laying on of the hands of the presbytery,’ and that he dared not do anything that looked like a renunciation of it as null and sinful. This would have made invalid all his previous ministerial work. He, and others, could not give his ‘unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer,’ for that would be to affirm everything in that books as true and good.
Their objections to the Book of Common Prayer were based on their belief that it taught some things contrary to the Word of God. For example, they believed that it taught baptismal regeneration; it required godfathers and godmothers in baptism, to the exclusion of parents; it required making the sign of the cross at baptism, which they felt was a superstitious addition to a divine ordinance. They would be forced to reject all from the Lord’s Supper who would not receive it kneeling; they could not consent to pronounce all saved over whom they were required to read the burial service; and it required them to read the apocryphal books under the title of Holy Scripture.
Their refusal to do these things made these conscientious ministers liable to excommunication, because, in essence, they were seen as charging the Prayer book with containing things repugnant to Scriptures; they were seen as affirming some of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as erroneous. And for this, they were excommunicated until they ‘repented and publicly revoked their wicked errors.’ In fact, the Act of Uniformity declared that they were to be regarded and treated as if they were dead.
Most of the Puritans had signed the Solemn League and Covenant, and the Act of Uniformity required them to renounce that document. The Puritans saw the imposition of such demands as sinful, and that to obey them would be equally sinful. One minister named Atkins declared that he would die for his king, but he would not be damned for him!
For this non-conformity, these men, in varying degrees, were abused, mistreated, forced out of their churches and pulpits, imprisoned, and deprived of their livings. Some of them took the approach that only God can call a minister, and only God can remove a minister. Joseph Alleine died at the age of 36, in prison for non-conformity. John Bunyan spent 12 years in jail for the crime of continuing to preach. Some of them preached with soldiers holding loaded guns to their heads. Some preached in the churchyard since they were forbidden to preach in the church itself. Some preached in the streets. Some who were imprisoned found their congregations gathered outside their jail cells on Sunday mornings, and so preached to them through prison bars.
Edmund Calamy, one of the most prominent ministers in London, would not conform. He decided to attend his former church for worship, but the supplying minister failed to show up, so the congregation asked Calamy if he had a sermon he could give them. He did so, and was arrested.
Another Puritan was arrested for praying with a parishioner, being told that ‘praying is preaching.’ There are accounts of ministers being beaten in the pulpit while preaching by soldiers. Because of their attempts to circumvent these restrictions, the Five Mile Act was passed, which forbade anyone who would not conform from preaching or teaching within a five mile radius of a church or public school!
Each account of preaching after the Great Ejection of 1662 brought with it an automatic prison sentence of 3 months. Christopher Ness, most known for his book An Antidote Against Arminianism, was excommunicated 4 times! It certainly becomes problematic to think of recommending Christopher Ness to one’s pastor to fill the pulpit, and then explaining that he has been excommunicated by a Christian church, and has spent time in jail for his contumacy!
Many of the Puritans started private congregations in their homes. Others started theological schools in their homes. Some left England and went to Holland; others came to America, such as Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, John Norton, and many others who distinguished themselves as New England Puritans. It was a dark day for the Puritans, and ultimately led to the end of the movement. But today we regard these men as heroes, and rightly so. No church can demand that which the Bible does not demand, and men are obligated to disobey if they are being asked to sin against a conscience that is held captive to the Word of God. It is not a lack of submission to refuse to do that which a governing body does not have biblical warrant to ask in the first place. The sin, then, is on the imposing body, not on the non-conforming person.