England’s Second Reformation: The Battle for the Church of England, 1625–1662
by Anthony Milton
Cambridge University Press | 2021 | 450 pages (hardcover) | $44.99
Grace and Conformity: The Reformed Conformist Tradition and the Early Stuart Church of England
by Stephen Hampton
Oxford University Press | 2021 | 424 pages (hardcover) | $95.00
On Christmas Day 1653, a few weeks after Oliver Cromwell had been sworn in as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a minister named John Boatman insisted on conducting a festive Communion service at his church in Norwich. Seven years after Parliament had banned the celebration of Christmas, this was a provocative act. Not only so, but Boatman offered the sacrament to all, attacking the policy of refusing to admit ignorant or scandalous persons to the Lord’s Table (a policy maintained by his neighboring minister John Collinges, who also refused to celebrate Christmas). It would be tempting to see in this event a stereotypical example of the debates that divided England in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, with Collinges as a typical Puritan and Boatman as a traditional Anglican resisting the Puritan revolution. But that would be a mistake: John Boatman was an ex-Presbyterian elected directly by his Norwich congregation, who did not feel the need to provide evidence that he had been ordained, and an outspoken critic of the authorities. In other words, he had many Puritan characteristics. John Collinges, on the other hand, justified what appears to be a Puritan-like policy toward Communion and Christmas on the rather Anglican basis that he was conforming both to the presently established church authority (banning Christmas), as well as the old Book of Common Prayer and canons of the Church of England (for fencing the Table).
For many, the story of these pivotal years in English church history is one of Calvinistic Puritan revolt against the intolerant and Arminianizing high church Anglicanism of Archbishop William Laud. In 1646, when Cromwell’s New Model Army enabled the Puritans to triumph, the Church of England went underground, surviving through private services of the Book of Common Prayer until it—along with the monarchy—was restored in 1660 by a grateful populace weary of the Puritan yoke. Faithful Puritans were ejected from the church, leaving the Church of England to follow a decidedly moderate path over the coming centuries.
The previously mentioned dispute between the two Johns in Norwich, however, illustrates that to understand how church polities such as Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism emerged from the seventeenth century, it is vital to pay attention to the interplay of both Reformed theology and ecclesiastical conformity. These two studies from Milton and Hampton show how these ingredients could mix in often confusing ways.
It is a truism that history is written by the winners. In the case of the Church of England, history has usually been written by those who were nurtured in the polarized communions born out of the seventeenth-century tumult. With few exceptions, seventeenth-century Anglicans tend to be viewed by both friend and foe as moderate or Arminianizing in theology, and Reformed theologians are assumed to have been all or nearly all Presbyterian or Congregationalist in polity. In different ways, both Milton and Hampton significantly complicate this narrative.
Hampton’s study returns to the Church of England prior to the Puritan revolution and focuses on a group of ten bishops and theologians whom Hampton helpfully labels “Reformed conformists,” such as John Prideaux, professor of divinity at Oxford, and John Davenant, a representative of the Church of England at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) and then bishop of Salisbury. This group of Reformed orthodox Anglican divines vigorously resisted both the Arminianizing theology of Laud’s allies and Puritan arguments against the rule of bishops and the imposition of extrabiblical ceremonies like kneeling at Communion and feast days like Christmas. Hampton gives this distinctive “style of divinity” the sustained and sympathetic theological attention it merits (which it largely lacked until now).
While these books overlap significantly—both authors acknowledge their indebtedness to the other—Milton’s more purely historical work casts a much wider net, retelling the story of the many efforts to reform the Church of England from Charles I’s accession in 1625 until the restoration of the monarchy in England under Charles II. Time and again, Milton shows that a stereotypical Puritan/Anglican dichotomy utterly fails to do justice to the historical debates. On one hand, Milton’s much richer picture shows how the Westminster Assembly of Divines’ reformation of the English church was rooted in earlier mainstream attempts to reform the Church of England. On the other hand, Milton rejects the idea of a pristine Anglican tradition handed down by the first English Reformers. He argues that England’s long “second reformation” during these years was just as decisive for the formation of what became the Anglican settlement as was the original Reformation under Henry VIII.
Reformed Conformity and the Laudian Reformation
Both Hampton and Milton demonstrate that the Anglican settlement received from Elizabeth I and continued under James I was essentially Reformed in theology. In the early Stuart Church, representatives of the Church of England contributed constructively to the Canons of the Synod of Dort. They defended uncompromisingly Reformed positions on predestination and justification in disputations and lectures at Oxford and Cambridge. Hampton argues that conformity to the doctrine and worship of the Church of England positively encouraged such contributions, even if his “Reformed conformist” divines consistently took a moderate theological line, rejecting supralapsarianism and maintaining that in a proper sense Christ died for all humanity.
Milton, for his part, discerns many more tensions in the early Stuart Church, including confusion over the church’s official doctrinal standards and ambiguity in its teaching. On one hand, this meant that the personal authority of scholars such as Prideaux and Davenant was especially important in transmitting Reformed orthodoxy. On the other hand, such ambiguities meant that from 1625 on—with a less cautious King Charles I on the throne—Laud and his allies were able to exploit the doctrinal minimalism of the Thirty-Nine Articles to argue that whatever was not forbidden should be permitted, even if it cut against the international Reformed consensus. Appealing selectively to the inherited settlement, Laudians erected altars in the place of Communion tables and rejected the Synod of Dort, framing the Reformed conformists who rejected these developments as closet Puritans.
In the early stages of the “Laudian Reformation,” resistance commonly took the form of appeal to the church’s authorized homilies, prayer book, and canons. Significantly, however, Hampton shows how such Reformed conformist arguments relied on debatable readings of the church’s constitutional documents. In contrast, Laudians saw conformity less as a constitutional position and more as a living tradition, embodied most authoritatively in the cathedrals and the king’s chapel royal (where altars and Arminian theology were in vogue). This was not a stable ecclesial situation, and it is no surprise to find an increasingly wide recognition that the English church required a new confession of faith if the Reformed orthodoxy of the Anglican settlement was to be maintained against unsympathetic reforms.
Reformed Conformity and the Puritan Reformation
In 1637, the Scots revolted from Charles’s absentee, yet religiously interventionist, rule. One result was that between 1640 and 1642, Charles was under increasing pressure in England to agree to a set of reforms of the church proposed by what became the Long Parliament. Contrary to popular perceptions, Milton shows that the two sides were not yet on an unavoidable collision course, at least religiously speaking, and that there was plenty of room for compromise. At this time, even Puritans were thinking more in terms of restoring the church to its Elizabethan purity than of separating from it. This was an ideal stage for the Reformed conformists, and they did indeed come to the fore with seven of Hampton’s ten divines serving on a House of Lords theological subcommittee chaired by Bishop John Williams. This committee clarified the status of disputed Church of England formularies in a Reformed direction, denounced the Laudian view that the Lord’s Supper was a sacrifice properly speaking, and proposed a scheme for reduced episcopacy, in which bishops would exercise their rule only with some level of approval from their presbyters. Despite this promising opportunity, no compromise was reached, and the Reformed conformists failed to satisfy Puritan demands. This failure illustrates where the true dividing lines fell between Puritans and conformists, at least as of 1641. The main obstacles to compromise were in two areas: church government and worship.
On government, the Reformed conformists were unsurprisingly strong proponents of episcopacy. The strength of the Reformed conformist commitment to episcopacy was demonstrated at Dort when the Church of England delegates, led by Bishop George Carleton, declared their “utter dissent” to the doctrines of ministerial parity and lay eldership. Yet as Hampton’s chapter on the topic shows, they were surprisingly tolerant of the presbyterian polity popular among their Reformed brethren. Carleton, Davenant, and their fellow Dort delegate Samuel Ward recognized that the weight of medieval scholastic opinion held that bishops and presbyters are not different ministerial orders but only differ in degree. Accordingly, the conformists allowed that in cases of necessity—such as those experienced by the continental Reformed churches—presbyters might be allowed to ordain other presbyters. Ward held that bishops and presbyters are essentially the same, but he saw in the common Reformed practice of permanent moderators or superintendents the functional equivalent to bishops. While Reformed conformists insisted that full Christian unity required the reintroduction of bishops, it seems that in practice they were willing to live with something less than that.
One reason such concessions were not successful in 1641 is that the Scots’ experience spoke powerfully against them. Reduced episcopacy in Scotland had turned back into something resembling monarchical episcopacy, where the bishop ruled his diocese alone. (A decade or so of ecclesial and social division later, English Presbyterians were more open to episcopacy on the Reformed conformist model. Richard Baxter once told a hardline Episcopalian that the Reformed conformists were “twenty fold nearer me in Judgement, then they are to you.”)
While debate over worship in the mid-seventeenth century was less in the spotlight than episcopacy, at first sight there was even more room for compromise. The Puritans did not demand the abolition of all fixed liturgy, for example, and Reformed conformists encouraged ministers to offer extemporary prayer before their sermons. But as Hampton says, despite offering various concessions the Williams theological subcommittee mentioned earlier was “not prepared to consider abolishing choral music in English cathedrals, the surplice, kneeling at communion, the wedding ring, the structure of the liturgical year, or the special service for the beginning of Lent.” Hampton stresses that the Reformed conformists did not see their commitment to conformity in worship as opposed to the Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Rather, they understood God’s grace to work through church-instituted ceremonies. At the same time, Hampton shows that the Reformed conformists were conscious that the value they placed on such extrabiblical ceremonies set them apart from the rest of the Reformed family, on the continent as well as in Britain.
Both of these books are magnificently well organized and edited. Both are superb models of contemporary historical writing attuned both to the integrity of theological thinking on its own terms and the relevance of historical circumstance. At the same time, they pull in slightly different directions. While Hampton finds Reformed conformity incompatible with Puritanism, Milton’s approach reveals blurred boundaries between the “old Puritans” and the “old Orthodox Protestant Bishops,” highlighting shifting patterns of religious alignment through the century and the relative fluidity of the established church.
The works also have opposite strengths. Milton could not be accused of leaving any stone unturned, offering the reader a scarcely credible amount of primary source engagement. Although his arguments are easy to follow, readers who lack a general view of the narrative background, such as the Aldermanbury Accord or Pride’s Purge, may find themselves getting bogged down. Hampton’s narrower focus allows him to guide the reader more gently into subtle theological discussions.
In the end, the Puritan revolution—even in its most conformist version—was undone by an alliance between Laudians and independents that produced a combination of doctrinal minimalism, restored monarchical episcopacy, and (eventually) widespread religious toleration. These studies show just how avoidable this result was and how undesirable from the standpoint of those committed to a Reformed articulation of the gospel, conformist or not. After reading Hampton and Milton, one is left feeling that, for all their undeniable differences, the Reformed conformists and the more conformist-minded Presbyterians had much more in common than the more strident groups that eventually outflanked them on both sides. If only they had been able to agree about Christmas.
Sam Bostock is a PhD candidate at Union Theological College, Belfast, and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
2. Hampton, Grace and Conformity, 307.