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TITHIN the last fifty years a marked and impor
tant difference has taken place in the attitude of Nonconformity towards the Church. At the time of the Revolution the leading Nonconformists held that there ought to be a National Church, and that separation between Church and State would be fraught with danger to the latter; in the present day a section of their members profess to hold, on political rather than religious grounds, that no National Church ought to exist, and do all in their power to weaken and to destroy it.
So plentiful, we might say noisy, in their unfounded assumptions are these latter-day opponents to the Church, that we propose to meet assertions which it is easy for any one to make, not by counterassertions, but by historical facts; and accordingly we shall in this chapter give a short account of Protestant Nonconformity in England from its birth to the present time.
Before the Reformation, dissent, in the modern sense of the word, did not exist in England. In all ages and countries there always have been, and there always must be (from the very construction of the human mind), in religion as in everything else, some people who object to authorized and established methods, whether it be in Church or State. And this opposition in the ecclesiastical as well as the civil polity is, within proper bounds, not only inevitable, but an essential condition of vitality.
The Puritans, the progenitors of the modern Dissenters, held it to be the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold a State Establishment. They made their first appearance in England during the reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., but being driven from England by the persecutions in the reign of Mary, many of them took refuge in Germany and Switzerland. On the accession of Elizabeth they returned to
England, deeply imbued with the system of Church government and doctrine which Calvin had established in Geneva : they had a preference for Presbyterianism, and a deep-rooted conviction that the English Reformation had not gone far enough in the way of reform. They imported into England a preference for Calvin's doctrine on the questions of election, absolute and irreversible decrees, and particular redemption. Every vestige of ceremonial they condemned as a badge of Popery, or, what they considered as bad, Lutheranism. They objected to set forms of prayer, to the singing the Church's services, to all instrumental accompaniments, to the sign of the Cross, to kneeling at Holy Communion,
to bowing at the Name of Jesus, to the ring in marriage. They were far from being all of one mind; there were various conflicting sects, with no cohesion except hostility to the Church ; there were Presbyterians who would abolish Episcopacy altogether ; there were the Brownists a, who were afterwards merged in the Independents and Congregationalists, and who objected both to Presbyterianism and Episcopacy; sects ready to fly at each other's throats, as soon as one or the other attained preeminence, and each applying in their time of need to that Church which in their day of prosperity they had done their best to pull down.
The hatred which these sects bore to the Church soon extended itself to the throne. Early in the reign of Elizabeth the Puritans formed a majority in the House of Commons, and had it not been for the judgment and discretion of the Queen, whose hand was always kept on the national pulse, the contest which was thus put off till the time of Charles I. would have occurred in her reign. The Commons had the power, which they afterwards used to such terrible purpose, of withholding the supplies; and the last Parliament of Elizabeth's reign showed that they meant to use that power, if they should find it
. Founded by Robert Browne, a Clergyman who seceded from the Church of England in 1569; he was in 1589 reconciled, and remained a member of the Church till his death in necessary. But Elizabeth, who in matters of religion had no idea of yielding to either the Puritans or Romanists, in civil matters, where she could yield conscientiously, yielded gracefully, and so the danger was averted for a future day.
A thankless attempt had been made to satisfy Puritans in the reign of Edward VI., when, in order to meet their views, the Prayer-Book was modified. But nothing would content them ; Neal tells us that they required the pulling down of all “ Cathedral Churches, where the Service of God is grievously abused by piping with organs, singing, ringing, and trowling of Psalms, with the squeaking of chanting choristers disguised, as are all the rest, in white surplices, some in corner-caps and filthy copes, imitating the manner and fashion of Antichrist, the Pope.” All they wanted to enable them to break out into open hostility was a leader, and such they found in the person of Thomas Cartwright, who, having been Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, was expelled the University on account of his heretical opinions, and who, having afterwards travelled on the Continent and becoming indoctrinated with the views of Beza, Calvin's successor, returned to England with a bitter hostility to the English Church. Under Cartwright the first organised separation of the Puritans from the English Church took place, and the first Presbytery on Calvinistic principles was established at Wandsworth ;
eleven Elders (or Presbyters) were chosen ; their offices were described as the “Orders of Wandsworth ;" and the Genevan Service-Book was adopted. Other Presbyteries were soon set up in the neighbouring counties; in a few years they were to be found in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, and soon afterwards in Lancashire and Cheshire. Sir Walter Raleigh declared in Parliament that there were 20,000 Separatists in the neighbourhood of London, Essex, and Norfolk; so greatly had they increased in influence that in 1584 a Bill was introduced, although unsuccessfully, into Parliament, for the reform of Church abuses, and "to establish a Presbytery, or Eldership, in each parish, together with the Minister, to determine the spiritual business of the parish.”
With the dynasty of the Stuarts the strange theory about the Divine Right of Kings ; the idea that the rule of primogeniture was a divine institution, anterior even to the Mosaic dispensation, and that God shows peculiar favour to hereditary monarchy; first came into vogue. James I. formally enunciated that doctrine which was to prove so fatal to more than one of his family; but James also advocated the divine right of Bishops, not so much because he cared for Bishops, as because the Bishops upheld the divine right of Kings. Hence arose the unpopularity of the throne, and on the unpopularity of the throne followed as a consequence the unpopularity of the