The Reformation in England

Reformation ferment crossed the English Channel within 15 years of its outbreak in Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England, for personal reasons, broke with the Church of Rome and established the Church of England, with himself as its secular head. He appointed an Archbishop of Canterbury as its spiritual leader. England moved beyond permanent Catholic control, although much of the Catholic liturgy and governance by bishops was adopted into the tradition of the Anglican Church (Episcopal, in America). Nevertheless, Lutheran and Reformed theology invaded Anglicanism during the short reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547-53), through Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

Catholic Mary Tudor (1553-58) on becoming Queen of England, persecuted those who refused to abandon Protestantism and burned Anglican bishops, including Cranmer. Over 800 dissenters fled to the Continent and came under the tutelage of more radical reformers, especially John Calvin. Mary’s half sister, Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) succeeded Mary and reestablished a more inclusive and tolerant Anglican Church. She warily welcomed from Europe the dissenters, who had become steeped in Reformed theology.

On their return, they joined others who felt that Elizabeth’s reformation had not gone far enough. They sought to purify the church. The Puritans, so named in 1563, criticized Anglican liturgy, ceremonies, and lack of discipline, especially of the clergy. Their thrust toward independent thought and church autonomy laid the foundations for Congregationalism. Nevertheless, they remained members of the Church of England.

The Puritans held to Reformed belief in the sovereignty of God, the authority of scripture as the revelation of God’s will, and the necessity to bend to the will of God. The Puritans regarded human rituals and institutions as idolatrous impositions upon the word of God. They wanted to rid the church of old remnants of papism. Puritan zeal in spreading their belief about God’s confrontation with humanity conflicted sharply with the established church. Nevertheless, the Puritans thought of themselves as members of the church, not founders of new churches.

Elizabeth had no heir, and James I ruled England next (160325) and commissioned a new translation of the Bible, known as the King James Version. James’s Church of England did not satisfy the Puritans. Yet, they could not agree among themselves about their differences with the church. They were called variously, Dissenters, Independents, Non-Conformists or Separatists. By this time, many Puritans were unwilling to wait for Parliament to institute ecclesiastical reform and separated themselves from the Church of England. Among them were groups that later were called Quakers, Baptists, and Congregationalists.

A civil war during the reign of Charles I (1625-49) was led by English and Scottish Puritans who beheaded the king and, under Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, seized English government (1649-60). For 11 years, Puritan radicals ruled England with excessive zeal and the monarchy was restored in 1660. The “Congregational Way” probably was born in 1567 when a group of Separatists, calling themselves “The Privye Church,” worshiped in London’s Plumbers’ Hall. They were persecuted severely and their leader killed. Clandestine meetings of Congregationalists continued for simple worship in fields and unexpected rooms, dangerously subject to surveillance by spies for the government, who brought persecution upon the worshipers.

Robert Browne, an Anglican priest, was the first conspicuous advocate of Congregationalism in England. By gathering, in 1581, a congregation in Norwich, Brown expressed his conviction that the only true church was a local body of believers who experienced together the Christian life, united to Christ and to one another by a voluntary covenant. Christ, not the king or queen, was the head of such a church; the people were its governors, and would elect a pastor, teacher, elders, and deacons, according to the authority of the New Testament. Furthermore, each autonomous church owed communal helpfulness to every other church. Browne was imprisoned 32 times and fled to the Netherlands. Browne retained his beliefs but did not remain a Congregationalist; he returned from exile in Holland to pastor a small Anglican parish in England.

Among the early Separatists were John Smyth, founder of the Baptist Church, and John Robinson (1573-1625). The lives of both men became entangled with that of William Brewster, who became a leader of the Plymouth Colony in America. Brewster lent his home at Scrooby Manor as a Separatist meeting place. Richard Clyfton became pastor and John Robinson, teacher. Brewster was ruling elder. In 1607 the Separatist Church was discovered and its members imprisoned, placed under surveillance, or forced to flee. They went first to Amsterdam and then to Leyden, Holland.

Concerned in Leyden that their children were losing touch with English language and culture, and beset by economic problems and threats of war, 102 of the Holland exiles became the Pilgrims who, under John Carver and William Brewster, migrated to the New World, arriving aboard the Mayflower in 1620. As the company left, John Robinson, beloved pastor and teacher who stayed with a majority in Holland, warned the adventurers not to stick fast where Luther and Calvin left them, for he was confident “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.” Arriving at Plymouth, their leaders realized that the Pilgrims’ survival in an unknown, primitive wilderness rested on their remaining loyally together. The Pilgrims drew up and signed the Association and Agreement, the Mayflower Compact, thereby forming of the small colony a “Civil Body Politic” for laws and regulations.

In 1630, John Cotton, a brilliant young minister of Boston, Lincolnshire, England, preached a farewell sermon to John Winthrop and his Puritan followers. Cotton reassured them of their clear call from God to follow Congregational principles, but insisted that they need not separate themselves from the Anglican Church. These Puritan emigrants set sail for Massachusetts Bay. At about the same time, a covenanting Puritan colony arrived in America from England under John Endecott to establish its church in Salem, across Massachusetts Bay, north of Boston. They sent a letter to the Separatist Church at Plymouth to ask for guidance. Commissioned delegates from Plymouth extended to the Salem Church “the right hand of fellowship” and so added fellowship in Christ to English Congregationalism’s freedom in Christ.

Concerned that there be educated leaders, the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted in 1636 to give £400 to establish a college in Newtowne (Cambridge). Colonist John Harvard contributed his library and two years later left the institution half his fortune. The college was, and is, called by his name.