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English Landmarks of Religion

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The story of religion in England is a very chequered one. It presents a fine record of progress, of heroism and devotion. But it has its dark pages marred by bigotry, persecution and reaction. It often illustrates Carlyle's contention that history is made by great personalities. At every turn of the road we meet some outstanding figure whose name becomes a landmark and whose work follows him. Some of these shape events, others are shaped by them, but all alike witness to the power of the religious impulse and to its importance as a factor in human progress.

The story begins with the conversion of southern England under the missionary Augustine, who landed on these shores in the year 597 and was appointed Metropolitan Bishop by Pope Gregory the Great in 601. But long before that time Christianity had had some foothold in the British Isles.

Bishops of London, York, and probably Lincoln, were present at the Council of Aries in 314. But after the downfall of the Roman Empire, Christianity had to struggle for bare existence, and the southern and eastern counties relapsed into heathenism under the Anglo-Saxon invaders. After the conversion of these under Augustine there was some controversy between the Roman missioners and those of the old British Church, but ultimately the two streams of influence coalesced, and Christianity in this country was characterised not only by fidelity to Roman order and ritual, but by missionary zeal and a genuine love of learning. The life of the great Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede (672?-735) illustrates the religion of his day at its best.

From that time forward and for several centuries the Roman Church adapted itself to and in many respects dominated the life of the English people. In its splendid story good and evil are strangely intermingled. As the wealth and power of the Church increased, it came to ally itself with the haves against the have-nots, and began to be regarded as an oppressor rather than a friend of the poor and needy. The wealth of the religious houses, the rapacity of the great ecclesiastics and the exactions of the wandering friars brought religion into disfavour and sometimes even into contempt. The times were ripe for change when John Wycliffe began his life work and earned for himself the name of a Reformer before the Reformation.

Wycliffe, that "divine and admirable spirit," as Milton calls him, was born at Hipswell, in Yorkshire, about the year 1320. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and ultimately became for a short period Master of that famous society. In the university he rose to great eminence as a powerful and original teacher. Influenced by Plato and Augustine, he became a realist in opposition to the nominalism of his time. Soon, also, he found himself in opposition to the prevailing temper and teaching of the leaders of the Church. By his treatises "De Dominio Divino," and on "Civil Lordship," he pointed the way to a freer and simpler type of Christianity than that of Rome. He laid stress on the divine supremacy, both in Church and State, and on the Scriptures as the only law and guide of the Church. The Church is the whole company of the elect, and its head is Christ, to whom Pope and cardinals are subordinate. All positions, both in the sacred and secular spheres, are held in fief from God, and only on conditions of faithful service. By such teaching as this, and by his translation of the Scriptures from the Vulgate into the English tongue, Wycliffe not only supplied a felt need, but also created and cultivated the taste for a simpler and more Scriptural form of Christianity. In 1374 he left Oxford and became Rector 01 Lutterworth, where he remained until his death in 1384. While there he organized and sent out bands of itinerant preachers, simple and russet-clad men, poor in purse but rich in zeal, who carried his doctrines up and down the land and met with great success among the common people. This was the beginning of the Lollard movement, which, though fiercely persecuted and for a time almost crushed, was never quite killed. It proved a seed plot from which all later reforms in the Church took their rise. Wycliffe's attack on transubstantiation as the chief source of the power and claims of the priesthood brought him into direct conflict with the authorities of the Church. Their hostility was increased by the great Peasant Rising in 1381, for which, quite unjustifiably, his teaching was held to be partly responsible. His opinions were condemned at a Synod held in London in 1382, and his "poor priests" were from that time unsparingly persecuted.

Wycliffe himself, however, was unmolested, as he had powerful friends in John of Gaunt and some of the nobles. But his work suffered. In this country it was many years before it bore any fruit. Its more immediate influence was on the Continent. Milton was probably right when he wrote in his "Areopagitica": "Had it not been the obstinate perverseness of our prelates against the divine and admirable spirit of Wycliffe to suppress him as a schismatic and innovator, perhaps neither the Bohemian Hus and Jerom, no, nor the name of Luther or of Calvin had been ever known; the glory of reforming all our neighbours had been completely ours."

But even in this country the fire which the Lollards had lighted was never wholly quenched. The way was slowly being prepared for great changes. Among the factors at work were the new knowledge of and love for the Bible, the influence of humanism under men like Colet, Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and a growing national consciousness. It was this latter that led the country to take the side of Henry VIII in his quarrel with the Papacy and justified Parliament in making the king not merely Defender of the Faith, but "the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England." Henry remained an orthodox Catholic in all points save acceptance of the Papal Supremacy. But his persecution of priests who refused to acknowledge his spiritual claims and his wholesale dissolution and confiscation of the monasteries caused a state of social and religious unrest which was favourable to the growth of Protestant ideas.

In 1538 Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer ordered that the new translation of the Bible prepared from the versions of Tyndale and Coverdale should be accessible in all churches. At the same time it was ordained that the Lord's Prayer and the ten commandments should be taught in English and the Litany was translated. These were slight changes, but they all pointed in one direction.

Under Edward VI and the Protector Somerset the Protestant trend became even more marked, and was accelerated for political reasons by Warwick, Duke of Northumberland. The first Prayer Book of 1549 was revised in 1552, prayers for the dead were omitted from it, and all vestments save the surplice were prohibited, as well as the rites of exorcism and anointing. The altar was to become a table, and bread used instead of the wafer at the Communion. The following year the Forty-two Articles for which Cranmer was mainly responsible were signed by the young king. They were more Protestant even than the Prayer Book.

Then came the strong Catholic reaction under Mary, and her persecuting spirit did much finally to alienate the nation from the Roman Church. Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Hooper, with Archbishop Cranmer and some 300 others, were burned alive, and lighted that torch which has never yet been put out. When Elizabeth came to the throne the nation was ready for a new religious settlement. This was accomplished by the year 1563, with the queen as Supreme Head of the Church and a Prayer Book and Thirty-nine Articles which well represented that spirit of com promise always dear to the English mind. The settlement was carried out mainly as a political and social measure. The struggles which led to it threw up no great religious leader save perhaps Laud. The religious revival was yet to come and was to be quite independent of it.

The form which this revival took was what is known in history as Puritanism. Within the English Church the Puritans were the true heirs of the Reformation. They sought a simpler and more spiritual religious faith and practice, and the abandonment of everything that savoured of Rome. Thus they objected to the prescribed clerical vestments, to kneeling at the Communion, to the use of the ring in marriage, and to the sign of the Cross in Baptism - small points, no doubt, but highly significant of a doctrinal position.

Chief representative of this type of Puritanism was Thomas Cartwright. He and others like him had no wish to leave the Church, but sought to remodel it from within on a Presbyterian pattern, and they were prepared to wait for the new leaven to work. But there were many in the Church who were not content to move thus slowly - men who took "thorough" for their watchword and were all for "Reformation without tarrying for any." These were the Separatists, led by Browne, Barrow, Greenwood, Penry and others, who sought to remodel the Church on a purely congregational basis, believing that all its members should be Christians, and that to such banded together in Christ's name and under His headship was given the right of Church government. They soon despaired of any real reform within the Church itself, and so they came out of it and formed their gathered Churches on what they believed to be the New Testament model. In spite of bitter persecution, fines, imprisonment, exile and the martyrdom of most of their leaders, the opinions which these men held continued to prevail until Puritanism in one form or another dominated the religious life of the country. It was a great and powerful movement of the spirit, resting on a deep consciousness of God and a sense of the reality of eternal values. It had the courage of conviction and of conscience and a faith that could move mountains. At its best it was, as Carlyle said, "the noblest heroism ever transacted on this earth." At its worst it degenerated into a very pitiful hypocrisy. It was a fighting and adventurous faith. It moulded such men as Pym, Hampden, Eliot, Vane and Cromwell, while in the New Model Army and the Mayflower Pilgrims to America it made history.

The true spirit of Puritanism may be said to have been incarnate in John Bunyan (1627-1688), who lived through the whole period of its rise and fall. A tinker and brazier by trade, he was a man of little book learning but great force of character and vivid imagination. In himself he epitomised some of the conflicting forces of his day. He was Royalist and Tory, Independent and Baptist, mystic and man of action. He loved the English Church and separated himself from it most reluctantly. He was no sectary, and never ceased to dream of Christian reunion. But he had passed through an intense and transforming religious experience which became like a fire in his bones compelling him to testify. His zeal for preaching cost him twelve years in prison, and the prison life made him a writer almost in spite of himself.

In the "Pilgrim's Progress" the Puritan spirit finds permanent literary expression, while his doctrinal and controversial writings reveal in him a sober defender and fervid exponent of evangelical truth as well as a warm-hearted lover of men. In his early home, Elstow, and in Bedford, the scene of his imprisonment and ministry, he was a prophet not without honour in his day.

The untimely death of Cromwell and the orgy of reaction which followed the restoration of Charles II to the throne marked the downfall of Puritanism. It had tried to lay on the English people a yoke heavier than they could bear, but its spirit was not altogether dead and for a time survived under persecution.

The passing of the Uniformity Act in 1662 revealed the existence of some 2,000 ministers who refused to bow the knee to Baal and preferred to suffer the loss of all things -rather than deny their faith. They had a great following among the common people, and in spite of bitterly vindictive legislation they continued to increase and multiply. With the revolution of 1688 and the growth of the spirit of toleration under William and Mary they took a new lease of life. Had the Church of England then been more wisely led, the final schism might have been avoided. But all efforts at comprehension failed, and from that time forward Nonconformity has been an ever-increasing power in the religious life of the country. It still suffered under many civil disabilities, but it had secured the right to exist, and for a time that was enough.

Victory, however, such as it was, had been very hardly won. The long struggle was no sooner over than a period of reaction and decadence set in which affected all the Churches alike. In the eighteenth century religion in this country reached its low-water mark. Deism and rationalism on the one hand, and practical materialism and laxity of morals on the other, had done their work. The Anglican Church was corrupt and stereotyped, while among the Nonconformists the spirit of formalism and sectarian bitterness prevailed.

As Bishop Butler said in the preface to his famous "Analogy," "it is come to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much a subject of enquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious." This, however, but marked that deeper darkness which often precedes the dawn. The dawn came with the great movement of the spirit known as the Evangelical Revival, in which John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield were the chief human agents.

John Wesley was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire in the year 1700. He came of Puritan stock on both sides, but was, like his father, a loyal member of the Church of England. He was trained at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, and afterwards was made a Fellow of Lincoln College. There he became one of a little band called the Holy Club, composed of men who were seeking reality and peace in their religion and trying to give expression to it in works of charity.

After his ordination he first assisted his father at Epworth, and later went with his brother Charles to work as a missionary in the new colony of Georgia. There he came into touch with the Moravians and was greatly impressed with their religious assurance and peace of mind. He was himself restless and unsatisfied and, in spite of his zeal and success in preaching, felt that he had not yet attained. The light came to him at the famous meeting in Aldersgate Street, when as he says, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved rne from the law of sin and of death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart."

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