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 Chapter 22

An Anglican Bishop’s Support For Religious Freedom

 

N the seventeenth century, Doctor Jeremy Taylor, chaplain to King Charles I and Bishop of Down and Conner, published a book entitled A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying shewing the unreasonableness of Prescribing to Other Men’s Faith: And the Iniquity of Persecuting Differing Opinions. In the edition of 1836, a long introductory essay was written by R. Cattermole, a fellow Anglican minister. Cattermole, with the advantage of hindsight, wrote:

The measure of freedom enjoyed in a country will always be in proportion to the diffusion of knowledge and virtue among the people. In the latter ages, therefore, of the degenerate Roman Empire, over which the mists of ignorance were settling with increasing density, and from which public virtue had fled, all remains of liberty became extinct. R. Cattermole, introductory essay in Jeremy Taylor’s, A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying, p. ix

The only changes that could come in the Roman empire, Cattermole contended, were through the disruption of despotism and the development of more responsible governments. Insightfully, Catter-mole wrote:

In a country, where religion is purely a political engine, as is the case in pagan Rome, toleration is impossible because under such circumstances treason and unconformity are identical. Ibid., p. xi

In contrast, he wrote:

As long as the Christian church continued uncorrupted, the utmost forbearance and mildness toward the professors of heretical opinions, consistent with public order, appeared to have prevailed. With corruption came in persecution. The first example of intolerance on the part of Christians towards each other, appeared in the destructions occasioned by the followers of Arius, and by the other powerful sects which rose about the same time, or not long afterwards [fourth and fifth century, this would have also included the Donatists]. But whatever severities were recommended and put in practice by these schismatics, by the Iconoclasts, at a later period, or by the church, in its angry endeavors to crush the swarms of heresies by which its peace was assailed, the rage of persecution among Christians, in those times, always stopped short of the punishment of death. Cattermole, p. xii

Indeed, is important to recognize that comparatively speaking, martyrdoms at the hands of fellow Christians were few before the thirteenth century. But the thirteenth century began one of the most ruthless assaults upon those who opposed the absolute authority of the Papacy. Thus Protestantism had its beginnings shortly after the increase of persecution, and unquestionably the success of the Protestant movement was significantly responsible for the very rapid escalation of martyrdom.

There seems no doubt that sixteenth century leaders such as Cranmer, Ridley, and Hooper were moving in the direction of more tolerance, if not liberty, for those who were non-conformists. But nevertheless, the common public seemed not ready for this liberality because of the centuries of papal thinking. Thus when Queen Mary came to the throne, during her short and cruel rule in support of Roman Catholicism, a majority of the population supported her strict discipline. We cannot deny that considerable persecution existed during the latter part of the sixteenth and a major part of the seventeenth centuries under Protestant rule.

If a church, in the prosperous days of Elizabeth and James, maintained her prerogatives against the Puritans with the severity of a parent assailed by the unreasonable clamors of rebellious children, these Puritans, however bitterly they complained of the hardship of their own position, never denied, upon general principles, the right of the former to persecute it; then "their ardor for toleration was nothing more than impatience of individual suffering." Ibid. p. xv

When we study the thinking of the day, we can understand why the Puritans of Massachusetts were people of the persecution mind-set. After all, they had left England during the reign of James I. They had spent time in the Netherlands, and then in 1620 had made their way to the new world. Theirs had not been so much a cry for liberty as it was a cry to accept their theological position. There is little doubt that, had they obtained the ascendancy and the support of the monarch, they would have in turn become the persecutors. Indeed, we have all the evidence we need to support such a conclusion, from an examination of history of the Puritans in the new world.

As there developed many new religious groups, there was great hatred generated between them, as each saw the other as being heretical.

In the multiplication of sects that took place in the latter part of that period, and in the reign of the unhappy Charles, the animosity of each towards each other, equaled that which all in common bore toward the establishment. Each strove for the supremacy of its own opinions—none for an equal charitable toleration of all speculative tenets alike; and when the most numerous and powerful of the religious factions opposed to the Church of England, at last obtained the ascendancy, its members proved too clearly by their arrogance and persecuting spirit how little effect calamity, which softens and corrects the ways of individuals, has in diminishing the [hostility] and smoothing the aspirates of sects and parties. Cattermole, pp. xv, xvi

In his introductory essay, Cattermole sums up the thesis of the seventeenth century Jeremy Taylor. Taylor believed that the exact truth on minor matters of government could not be exactly determined, and has very little input in determining the behavior of men. Therefore he emphasized peace and charity as of great importance. However, Taylor did not see this freedom on minor matters of dogma as extending to fundamental biblical principles. Thus he proposed that the Confession of the Apostles’ Creed should be accepted as a test of all orthodoxy, and the condition of union and communion with Christians. Unfortunately, in suggesting the Creed as a basis of unity, Taylor missed a fundamental principle of Protestantism, "that the Bible and the Bible only is our basis of faith and practice." But the credal concept was taken to the new world, and in 1680, the New England Confession of Faith was adopted. It had many of the same precepts as the European reformational confessions of faith. But such confessions of faith did not provide a clear platform for religious liberty.

Yet we must not overlook the tremendous contribution that Doctor Jeremy Taylor made in his landmark book in the seventeenth century. It is true that he did not comprehend liberty as we understand it today, but rather emphasized the need for toleration of the many different sects that were rising up out of the Protestant Reformation. There is no question that he believed that the Church of England had the truth, and he staunchly defended its basic tenets. In many ways his thinking was sacral, but it was that of an extraordinarily benevolent sacralist—a man who, while strongly defending the positions of the Church of England, nevertheless thought to offer freedom from religious and civil persecution to those who chose to dissent from the Church of England.

His thesis is particularly extraordinary in that Dr. Taylor should write so persuasively on religious liberty, when it is realized that he was serving the Stuart kings. Charles I, son of the first Stuart, King James I, like his father, believed in the divine right of kings. Indeed, it was largely this belief that led to the events that culminated in his execution by beheading. After the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, Taylor was proscribed as a royalist, and found his way to a country area of Wales where he and his family resided through considerable privation. He eventually went to northern Ireland, where under the patronage of a nobleman, his circumstances were a little better.

It so happened that Doctor Taylor was visiting in London when the monarchy was reestablished under Charles II. This in many ways seemed fortuitous for Doctor Taylor, because he came to the new king’s attention as a loyalist to the new king’s father while he had been chaplain to the court. The new king created him bishop of Down and Conner, a diocese far from London where he had no firsthand acquaintance with the practices of Charles II. Indeed, if Charles II had followed the call for toleration by Bishop Taylor, Bunyan would not have spent many years in prison; John James would not have been hanged, drawn, and quartered; and others would not have had to flee to the new world in the hope of protection from persecution there.

 


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