Prayer Book and Persecution, 1662.   Leave a comment

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Listening to the Sunday morning service on BBC Radio 4, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preaching on this the first Sunday in Lent, I was reminded of two great events in Church History which happened 350 years ago this year. The first was referred to in the introit sentence for Lent, taken from the Prayer Book published in 1662, ‘Rend not your garments, but your hearts’. I quoted this in last week’s blog about the Lent Events of last week, some outward signs of which are based on the Old Testament signs of penitence, ‘sackcloth and ashes’. The second, which I was reminded of by broadcasts and discussions throughout last week and again, by Dr Williams’ sermon from the King’s School in Canterbury this morning, referring to ‘God’s Liberty’, is known as ‘the Great Ejectment’ which followed ‘the Act of Uniformity‘ of 1662.

First, a little personal background is perhaps necessary in order to explain my spiritual motivations. I lived and worked in Canterbury until last year, worshipping in two very different Anglican churches and the United Reformed Church in Watling Street. I also attended Evensong at the Cathedral, and walked with my son on the Youth Pilgrimage twice on Easter Monday, a walk led by Rowan Williams along the River Stour into the city, where we sang joyful, vibrant songs accompanied by a rock band. The Pilgrimage started at Chartham, where I lived and worshipped, on opposite sides of the Village Green. Although a Nonconformist, a Baptist by believers’ baptism at the age of fourteen and a Quaker ‘by convincement’ in my twenties, I had, like Rowan Williams, found a home as a student in the disestablished Anglican church in Wales, training for teaching Religious Education at Trinity College, Carmarthen before taking up an appointment at a voluntary-controlled Church of England Secondary School in Lancashire. There I worshipped regularly at the local parish church, until I was told by the rector that if I wished to continue to take communion, I would need to be confirmed by the Bishop. Since I had already given my confession and been received into ‘the church universal’ ten years earlier, I saw no reason for this, and stopped attending. Instead, I found a very open, if small, meeting of Quakers in the town, and having attended Quaker meeting in my early student days in Bangor, again became a ‘refugee’ attender in Lancashire, then moving to Coventry, where I am still in membership, though unable to attend at present, being ‘in exile’ here in Hungary. So, when we went to live in Chartham as a family, we were delighted to be welcomed by the rector and congregation there, who had seen the last Nonconformist ’causes’ in the village close down, and made it clear that everyone living in the village, from whatever Christian ‘tradition’, was welcome to receive communion on equal terms. On this basis, I also became a member of the Parochial Church Council until the rector left and diocesan ‘authority’ was again restored.   From this background, you may begin to understand why I hold strong beliefs about religious liberties in general, the role of the state in this, and the rights of parents to have access to a broad and deep Religious Education for their children within the state-funded system which they support through taxation and, indeed, in the case of Nonconformity, helped to create.

I’ve always been interested in the History of Nonconformity, or ‘Dissent’, going back to the time of the Reformation and the ‘Gunpowder Plot‘. As a History teacher in my second appointment in Coventry, I researched the Catholic Rebellion in the Midlands which accompanied ‘the Plot’, which I discovered was really a plot by the Stuart state in Whitehall against the ‘recusant’ Midland gentry. I also joined the English Civil War re-enactors, ‘the Sealed Knot’ and began to play a ‘Quaker’ corporal in the New Model Army. It was then that I encountered the real chaplains in the Army, Henry Pinnell and Richard Baxter, both of whom had worked for a lasting peace with the King based on a tolerant, national church for all Protestant believers, which would no longer have the monarch as its Head. Charles refused this, and thereby lost his. I played the part of Pinnell in my regiment, much of the part being based on Baxter, about whom we know a lot more.

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and state, Baxter, as a leading Puritan, continued to work for a broad settlement in the Church of England. However, the restored bishops refused to take the hand of friendship from those, they believed, who had turned them out of their ‘livings’.  They also sincerely believed that the people were being wrongly taught, and persuaded the new King to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’, to make everyone conform to a uniform way of worship. The Puritan ministers would need to promise to use the restored Prayer Book and obey their bishops, or they would be expelled from their parishes. The deadline for this was set as St Bartholemew’s Day, August 24th, 1662. Baxter was one among many ministers who could not promise this, not because he couldn’t use the Prayer Book, but because he believed that it was wrong for the state to force people to do anything against their conciences, and so could not accept the Act itself.  Being turned out of their churches also meant losing their homes so that, as Baxter wrote in the autumn of 1662, “hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread”. Worse was to follow. Many of the people loved their ministers and tried to help them, following them about, listening to their teaching in private homes and outdoors. A further law was made, this time against the people as well as the ministers, stopping such meetings and imprisoning those attending to prison. This was called ‘The Conventicle (or Meeting) Act’. Prisons soon became full of brave people who defied the Act, especially the Quakers.  Baxter admired them for their courage in the face of persecution, though disagreeing with many of their ideas. They met openly and didn’t resist arrest, continuing their meetings in prison.  Baxter also fell victim to these laws. He couldn’t return to Kidderminster and had to move home nine times in three years, being followed by spies wherever he went, who reported even his visits to the sick, in which he prayed with them. This, the magistrates claimed, was a ‘conventicle’ under the law.  “What a joy would it have been to them” he wrote, “to have found but such an occasion as praying with a dying woman to have laid me up in prison.” Another time he was preaching in the window of a house when he was shot at, but muskets and pistols were not very accurate weapons, so thankfully no-one was hurt by the ‘sniper’s bullet’.

In 1665 the Great Plague came to London. Of course, it was the duty of clergymen to stay with the dying and help the  bereaved families, but so many fled into the country that the silenced nonconformist ministers were needed too badly for anyone to stop them from ministering to the Plague victims. They said that “no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by the law’ “.  Despite this, or perhaps because of the popularity they had gained because of it, another Act was passed against them, the Five Mile Act, forbidding them from coming within five miles of any important town or any place where they had once been ministers. Since help from ‘the Parish’ for the jobless could only be obtained from the area which was, or had been, their home, this meant that the nonconformist ministers would be starved out. Some emigrated, and those that stayed either hid in out-of-the-way villages, or lived secretly near their own homes, visiting their wives and children only at night.  Baxter shows how, even by this hard law, God was able bring good out of evil, because many ministers had little to lose by continuing to preach and teach openly rather than see their children starve. So congregations continued to grow and support them, and there were not enough jails to hold the numbers defying the  three Acts of Parliament.

One of those living in prison was John Bunyan, who had been an officer in Cromwell’s Army, and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became the second most popular book in England, and one of the most important works of literature in English, because of its influence on the development of the language. It was written during his seven years in Bedford Jail.  Baxter himself, and his family, escaped the Plague, though the churchyard at Acton, six miles from London, “was like a ploughed field with graves”.  The Great Fire of 1666, the next terrible event to strike the City. Everyone knows Pepys’ version of these events, and I’m using a simplified English reader on it in class at present, but Baxter noticed that “those who had money managed to get their carts and carriages and horses to carry away their possessions from the burning houses, but the poor lost almost all they had”.  The only possessions Baxter ever cared much about were his books, perhaps because he, like Bunyan, believed the pen to be ‘mightier than the sword’ or, to put it another way which I was also reminded of last week, ‘books are weapons’ (it’s a pity that those American soldiers who burnt copies of the Qu’uran were not educated enough to understand the symbolic force their act would have). Baxter noted in his diary the huge number of books destroyed in the fire:

“Almost all the booksellers in St Paul’s Churchyard brought their books  into vaults under St Paul’s where it was thought almost impossible that fire should come. But the Church itself being on fire, the exceeeding weight of stones falling down did break into the vault and let in the fire and they could not come near to save the books.”

Many othe libraries were burnt and six miles away at Acton Baxter noticed half-burnt pages blowing past his cottage door. Just as he had had to go to the battlefield at Edgehill to see the destruction for himself, so too with the Fire. Defying the Five Mile Act, on his way to the City he saw “the fields filled with heaps of goods and costly furniture” and at last caught sight of “all the buildings aflame” and “the air as far as could be beheld, so filled with the smoke that the sun shined through it with a colour like blood”.

Baxter thought these events should have stopped the religious quarrels and persecutions, but each side blamed the other for what had happened. The nonconformists, who were among the poor Londoners who suffered most, were one of the groups blamed for starting the fire, perhaps because their ministers had been forced, like Baxter, to leave the City’s churches, and people suspected it was an act of vengeance on their part. This shows how little such people understood the beliefs of the Dissenting congregations, however, who once more were allowed to open their meeting houses to those who needed comfort and shelter, or a place to meet,  having not only lost their houses and possessions but also their places of worship.

Baxter himself was careful not to be seen as setting himself up in competition with the established church, still hoping for a better settlement with it. He continued to preach to family and friends in Acton, and then to growing numbers from surrounding parishes, but he did not preach during church times and, since his house was close to the church, he took people to hear the Vicar after he had preached to them!  However, the Vicar eventually became jealous of Baxter and informed the King that Baxter was breaking the Conventicle Act.  He was visited by the magistrates, but refused to stop preaching and so was imprisoned, but Newgate was too full of Quakers already!  So instead, he was sent to Clerkenwell where he was allowed a room of his own, which his wife could share.  However, he knew that, on release, he would have to leave Acton, because of the Five Mile Act.

I’ll be writing more about his time in and out of prison later in the week. For now, I want to conclude with the points that I raised to begin with. The attempts of the state to impose uniformity in religion through the 1662 Prayer Book seem a very long way away from the tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-faith society we live in today. Yet our society did not emerge out of that one like a butterfly out of a chrysalis as if by magic. It required the courage, self-discipline and sacrifices of men and women like Richard Baxter,  John Bunyan and William Penn, whom I shall also be writing about later. Let me sign off, for now, with this paradox: ‘out of unity, comes diversity; out of diversity comes unity’.

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