The Interregnum and the unsuccessful quest for religious unity

Time Title Content
Ann Hughes, interviewed by Mike Gibbs
[00.00] Mike Gibbs:   

Professor Hughes in previous programmes you have discussed the consequences of the factionalism and divisions caused by the Reformation and the subsequent events which finally resulted in Civil War

Now, I would like to ask you to explore Parliament’s attempt to create religious conformity across the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland and why their proposed reforms proved impossible to implement.

[01.39] Ann Hughes: 

In the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641, the House of Commons insisted that it is,

far from our purpose or desire to let loose the golden reigns of discipline and government in the Church. To leave private persons, or particular congregations to take up what form of divine service they please. For we hold it requisite that there should be, throughout the whole realm, a conformity to that order which the laws enjoin according to the word of God”.

Thus, in November 1641, the House of Commons declared its commitment to religious conformity, to a Reformation of the whole Church of England.

[02.52]   The fall of Charles’ Personal Rule and for many prominent Puritans, a reason, or justification for taking up arms against the King, was the chance to complete at long last the Reformation of the ‘halfly reformed’ English Church.
The 1640s looked that there would be a great opportunity at long last to complete the Reformation, but in the view of many mainstream or orthodox Puritans, the 1640s was an opportunity missed and by the 1640s indeed, religious Reformation seem to have led instead to religious fragmentation, horrifying error and a world turned upside down.
The first point I want to make is that there are pre-existing tensions or disagreements within Puritanism. As well as a drive towards general Reformation indicated in my earlier quote from the Grand Remonstrance, there were elements that encouraged Puritanism to fragment, that focused on liberty rather than on reform.
 uritanism, zealous Protestantism in general, focused on the individual conscience. It focused on a laity that was active, that thought for themselves. This might lead to men and women making their own religious choices. A belief in pre-destination of a minority, who were only going to achieve salvation, might lead in different directions. If you didn’t know exactly who the predestined ’saved’ were, perhaps you should have a compulsory national Church, where the Godly and the ungodly, the saved and the damned, mixed together. But if you thought that you could probably know through exploring your own soul and through your life in the world, you perhaps, if you could probably just about know who the Godly were, perhaps the Godly should gather together voluntarily in separate congregations and shun the wicked, or the ungodly.
[09.31]   So, rather than a compulsory Church that led in the direction of people making their own decisions, their own voluntary agreements to join particular congregations, the free-preaching and discussion of Calvinist doctrine might lead to different conclusions. Was it likely anyway that a merciful God would only save a few people? So, first point would be that Puritanism, in an atmosphere of freedom, might well fragment rather than unite the Reformation.
Secondly, the Episcopal Church and its powers of compulsion collapsed very quickly in the early 1640s. Bishops, from which the term ‘Episcopy’ comes from, disappeared, Church Court stopped acting and censorship of the press, which was conducted by Bishops, collapsed. The Parliament did make attempts to reassert control, but for a decade or more people had freedom to discuss ideas, to spread their views to the press, and to campaign for the support for their ideas and to build their organisations. So the breakdown of existing authority and the lack of any immediate replacement of a church ruled by Bishops gave people the freedom to develop their ideas, to spread and campaign for them through the press and in person and to build their organisations.
Thirdly, although Civil War was alarming to many people and in many ways, there was excitement and exhilaration in defying the King and in a belief that you were fighting the Lord’s battles. This was particularly seen in Parliament’s New Model Army, which had a long unbroken series of victories after its establishment in the spring of 1645. Even the controversial and unprecedented public trial, and execution of King Charles I in 1649, to some people was evidence that God was doing marvellous things for and with his people. Normal authorities were being overthrown through the action of ordinary soldiers.
The implications were obscure, but they were much debated and in particular Millenarian ideas spread, the idea that these were the last days before the Second Coming of Christ to rule for a 1000 years with his saints;  ‘Millenarianism’ coming from the word for a 1000 years. These were extraordinary times, extraordinary measures were occurring and more might come. The army of course is particularly important, but such ideas also had an impact on many other people who were not fighting directly in the war.
  The fourth point, is that Parliament’s plans for overall reform of the Church were subject to delay and division. And during this time of delay, arguments that there should not be a compulsory comprehensive Church at all, developed. Now in the early stages of the Long Parliament, it was impossible that Bishops with their powers limited and with Bishops being associated with the committees of other ministers, might survive and remain the basic structure of the Church. But in the excitement of the meeting of the Parliament, the zeal for Reformation in what was termed in a petition, ‘root-and-branch’, grew. People, particularly in London, petitioned that bishops were inappropriate and should be removed root-and-branch in a properly reformed church.
[14.39] Mike Gibbs:

What action did Parliament take in this situation? How did it try to take control and particularly, what role did the Scots play?

  Ann Hughes:  Parliament appointed a Synod, a national assembly of ministers and some laymen, to work out a plan for  ormed national Church. This was known as the Westminster Assembly because it met in Westminster Abbey. It met first of all in July 1643 and was joined soon by representatives, ministers and laymen from the Scots, the Scottish Church, because in the summer of 1643, the English Parliament made an alliance with the Scots against the Royalists.
This was sealed by an oath here called The Solemn League and Covenant, taken by the House of Commons in September 1643 and ultimately to be imposed on all adult males in England, and this looked as if it was going to commit England to a Presbyterian system.

Now, the first clause of the Solemn League and Covenant bound people to,

sincerely, really and constantly, through the grace of God to endeavour in our several places and callings, the preservation of the reformed religion of Scotland – the reformed religion, the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland in doctrine, worship, discipline and Government against our common enemies and the Reformation of religion in the Kingdoms of England and Ireland.”

The important point there of course if that the Scot’s religion, the Scot’s Church only needed to be preserved, it’s only in England and Ireland that you need Reformation and it went on to say that their ideal – and it echoes in a different form, Charles I’s ideal –

to bring the Churches of God in the three Kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity and religion, confession of faith, church and government”,

and so on,

together, so that we are our posterity after us, may as brethren live in faith and love and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us.”

So, uniformity is what’s the covenant, and Reformation is what the covenant declared its commitment to.

[17.59]   But none of this happened. First of all, a minority, but a distinguished minority of educated clergy in the Assembly, argued for a looser and more voluntary structure. It’s known to its adherents usually as Congregationalism, or as Independency. Independence again is a term mostly used by critics of the system. It drew on the experience of New England where the English emigrants were mostly Godly people who gathered together in congregations on a local parish level, who were independent of each other. They talked and consulted together, but it was not the system in Presbyterianism where the regional committee could impose their views on the parishes within it.
[18.55] Mike Gibbs: 

For conformity to work a common nationwide acceptance was required.  What was the response from parishes to these proposed reforms to the way they worshipped?

  Ann Hughes:  On a parish level, under Congregationalism, full Church membership, that’s the right to take communion as well as the right to attend, full Church membership was confined to the visibly Godly. It was sort of semi-separatism, the visibly Godly who sometimes were asked to publicly testify how God was working on the souls and in their lives, and before they were admitted to the Church.  It’s a voluntary body with personal testimony often of their faith. And there was no overall regional, or national structure.  Each congregation was independent of itself, it’s the birth of modern Congregationalism.

Most of these Churches I want to say were orthodox in their basic beliefs. They were friends, they had been at universities together with Presbyterian ministers, they were educated, they were ordained ministers. But because they did want to be part of a national Presbyterian structure, they wanted at least some liberty outside a national Church, and they were associated by men, like zealous Presbyterians like Thomas Edwards, with more radical sectarian separatism and speculation, and they were accused wrongly of believing in widespread complete toleration which they didn’t believe in, but they did require some liberty outside any national Church.
So the division in the Westminster Assembly and amongst broader Puritan opinion and experience, between a national Presbyterian system and a decentralised Congregational system, is important.

[20.51]   Perhaps even more damaging though, to the hopes of overall reform, was the Parliament’s own reluctance to support a full Presbyterian system, which was seen as giving too much power to the clergy over the laity. So the legislation went backwards and forwards, could go on for hours and were between Parliament and the Assembly, lots of arguments about where the ultimate power lay, and it was only in 1648 that a full blueprint for Presbyterianism passed the Houses, passed in the Parliament, only passed in the summer of 1648, to become almost immediately irrelevant because it was formed – it was followed by the army coup which we know as Pride’s Purge, in December 1648 which ultimately led to the trial and execution of the King and also led to the suspension in 1649 of the Elizabethan laws enforcing church attendance.
[22.09]   This established a de facto religious toleration for Protestants, parish churches survived, and most ministers remained serving in parish churches, but their attendance was voluntary, and a Presbyterian system could not work as a voluntary system, it was established as a national comprehensive system. So although it operated partially in places like London and Lancashire. The legislation that established but it was never really operative.
Parliament’s army which drove through the trial and execution of the King according to the orthodox Puritan Richard Baxter,  became a hotbed of Independency and more radical indeed ideas.

Richard Baxter wrote that,

“honest men of weak judgements had been seduced into a disputing vein. Made it too much of their religion to talk for this person and for that.’ Sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy, sometimes against forms of prayer, sometimes against ….EDIT….infant Baptism. Sometimes about free grace and free will and all the points of Antinomianism and Arminianism”.

[23.43] Mike Gibbs: And radical religious thinking was really driven forward by the army?
  Ann Hughes:

In one of the most famous declarations of the 1640s, the Army declared in June 1647, when they were in revolt against a Presbyterian dominated Parliament they said,

“we were not a mere mercenary army hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations Parliament to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties.”

Amongst those liberties were freedoms for those who, upon conscientious grounds, may differ from the established forms of religious orthodoxy, while they live soberly, honestly and inoffensively towards others, and peaceably and faith-ably towards the state. And this notion of a Parliament’s army, a Parliament’s victorious army fighting in God’s cause, demanding religious liberty, is very important to Pride’s Purge, to the republic and to the removal of any compulsory national Church from the agenda really, until the end of 1650s.


Religious liberty was called for by the army and to some extent by Independents in the Westminster Assembly by Congregationalists.
The democratic movement, the Levellers who emerged from the separatist congregations that sprang up in London in the early 1640s, called for decentralised Government based on popular consent and near adult male suffrage for annual Parliaments in a series of manifestos called Agreements of the People. Clause 10 of the 1649 Agreement of the People said that;

“we do not empower or entrust our representatives in Parliament to continue in force or to make any laws, oaths or covenants, to compel any person to do anything in or about matters of faith, religion, or worship. Or to restrain any person from the profession of his faith, or exercise of religion, according to his conscience. Nothing having caused more distractions and heart-burnings in all ages than persecution and molestation for matters of conscience in and about religion.”

[37.29]   So that’s a plea for very widespread religious liberty but the Levellers did not support the Republican or Commonwealth regimes of 1649 to 1653, regarding it as too authoritarian and they were suppressed.
[27.00] Mike Gibbs:

This climate of questioning the fundamentals of organised religion must have caused turmoil and confusion. What happened?

  Ann Hughes: 

In this de facto religious marketplace where there was no effective compulsory national Church and there was a stress on voluntary activity and the individual conscience, some of the previously fundamental religious beliefs.
First of all, if God’s spirit might inspire anyone and religion was a voluntary activity, why did you need an educated ministry, especially ordained to their positions? Lay preaching flourished as never before.
In 1646, Thomas Edwards, an orthodox Puritan and a supporter of a national church run on Presbyterian lines on the Scottish model, produced three books running to almost a thousand pages in all.
His title Gangraena, implied you needed to cut off error before it spread and that even small errors could lead to worse ones. There were vivid stories of lay preachers, that is men, and sometimes women, who had no education and no official appointment to a church. Vivid stories of lay preachers roaming the country baptising adults, usually women, usually naked, usually at dead of night.
Summing up he said:

“Among all the confusion and disorder in church matters, both of opinions and practices, of mechanics taking upon them to preach and baptise, as smiths, tailors, shoemakers, peddlers, weavers etc., there are also some women preachers.”

Thomas Edwards, was given to paranoia and did exaggerate, but his work gives a flavour of the outrage and fear of social disorder that profound religious division generated in some, probably most people. For others of course, religious freedom was liberating and exciting. Even if Thomas Edwards exaggerated how many weavers and how many women actually did preach; it’s clear it was a very significant activity.
In the next place, if a church was a voluntary gathering of the Godly, why on earth do you baptise infants? You baptise infants as a mark of their membership into a compulsory national Church.  If a church depends on the visible Godly, you have to wait until people are old enough to make their own decisions and their own declaration of faith. So that in 1640s and ‘50s, Baptist congregations, which there had been in tiny numbers before the Civil War, Baptists congregations spread throughout the country perhaps to about 250 different church organisations, church congregations.

[28.42]   Was a national Church flawed but acceptable? Should you keep it going because most people weren’t into voluntary organisations?  But if the church was evil and voluntarism was dominant, perhaps you should separate all together from the Church, from a national Church. And the national Church, the Church ruled by Bishops, the Episcopal Church and ideally a Presbyterian Church, the ministry in those churches was supported by the compulsory payment of Tithes. A tenth of your annual profits or increase to the national church and its ministry. But why should pay Tithes if you didn’t have anything to do with that national church?
  Mike Gibbs:

What were the new religious groups which emerged out of this confusion, such as the Quakers?

[30.22] Ann Hughes:  The Quakers, in many ways, the most strikingly and permanently successful of the groups who emerged in the 1650s, believed that potentially everyone could be saved, everyone who identified with Christ by embracing the light within, could receive salvations.
t’s worth mentioning in this context that the early Quakers were also very aggressive and in-your-face, unlike the Quakers of today. The minister, Ralph Josselin was attacked in the street, by Quakers who shouted, ‘there cometh your deluder’ and ‘woe to the false prophet.’ So, there’s aggressive attacks on the orthodox and aggressive raising of support. 

Quakers refused to pay Tithes and often suffered imprisonment and harassment for it. Indeed, many people worried about Tithes, but they were a form of property, sometimes had been alienated to lay people, so after much heart-searching Tithes did indeed survive all this religious ferment.

[32.07]   The Ranters were a group who were active, very significantly just after the Regicide, the execution of the King when everything seemed up for grabs. The Ranters argued that as they were God’s elect and as they could not finally fall from grace whatever they did, conventional definitions of sin did not apply to them and indeed swearing, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, which they all enthusiastically indulged in, might be a sign of your election.
[32.58]   More serious and a genuine threat to the early Protectorate, which was established in 1653, were the Fifth Monarchy Men, although the men also included the most influential woman prophet of the period, in Anna Trapnell.
The Fifth Monarchiststake their name from the prophecies in the Old Testament book of Daniel that prophesised that after the fall of four successive earthy regimes, the Fifth Monarchy would be the rule of the saints, preparing the way for the Second Coming.
Fifth Monarchy Men worked practically to establish the rule of the saints. England should be a Godly republic run by members of gathered congregations largely run by themselves and their allies. There were hopes that the Barebone’s Parliament, a nominated Parliament that met briefly in 1653, would usher in the Rule of the Saints, but it didn’t. And so the Fifth Monarchists saw Cromwell’s assumption of personal power in December 1643, as a betrayal of the Godly cause. Their leaders were imprisoned in 1654, they were regarded as a genuine threat to the new regime, and they finally imploded with a futile tiny rising in 1661.
[34.43]   I also should mention the mystical prophet Gerard Winstanley, who was also inspired like the Ranters by the Regicide, but not like the Ranters in any other way. He was inspired in a trance to encourage his friends to dig the common land together in Surrey. A voice told him they should work together, eat bread together to restore the earth as a common treasury for all – a brief attack on private property and an argument for communal living.
The Diggers had a brief following in 1649-50, but were dispersed, harassed mostly by suspicious neighbours, rather than by central authorities who didn’t really take them very seriously.
[38.21] Mike Gibbs:

So does the flowering of multiple religious groups signify that England had become a land of religious liberty?

  Ann Hughes:

The Instrument of Government, the written constitution that established the Protectorate in December 1653 laid down more limited but still very significant degree of religious liberty.
First of all, they did say that you needed some form of loose, not compulsory, national, Church saying that the Christian religion, as contained in the scriptures, be held forth and recommended as the public profession of these nations. They also said that,

“none shall be compelled by penalties or otherwise, but that endeavours be used to win them by sound doctrine and the example of a good conversation.”

[39.55]   The next clause said that,

“such that professed faith in God by Jesus Christ, though differing in judgement from the doctrine worship or discipline publicly held forth, were to be protected in the profession of their faith and exercise of their religion, provided that they did not abuse this liberty to the civil injury of others, the disturbance of the public peace and provided that this liberty was not to be extended to Popery or to such as under the profession of Christ, hold forth and practise licentiousness.”
o this is a more limited religious liberty. In the first place it was alongside a public profession, a national Church that was to be given financial support, and that endeavours for religious unity were to be made, but there was to be no forced religious unity. Liberty was not to be extended to Popery,

[41.28]   The disturbance of the public peace referred to Quakers, who spent a lot of time disturbing the public peace and attacking parish ministers.
  Mike Gibbs: And what was Oliver Cromwell’s attitude when he became Lord Protector?
  Ann Hughes: 

It has been argued that Cromwell regarded liberty as the best way of achieving unity, people would find many ways to reach an agreed religious truth. It’s clear that other people, including the poet Milton, thought diversity and debate was essential, because it wasn’t clear where the truth was but this did not imply toleration of all Christian religions. Catholics were certainly excluded.


Cromwell was not a persecutor however, Catholics who kept their heads down were not persecuted. Only one Catholic priest was executed during Cromwell’s rule, and he virtually jumped up and down and begged them to execute him, rather than letting him go.
Quakers, imprisoned by alarmed local governors, were sometimes freed on Cromwell’s initiative, A degree of religious toleration, rare in Europe, was present in the England of the 1650s, rivalled only I think by the Dutch Republic, where Jews and Catholics could also at least in private practise their faiths.

[43.22]   Anxieties about Quaker transgressions and disorder and about the social implications of religious freedom in a situation where husbands and wives, masters and servants, might choose to go to different Churches, did alarm a more conservative people. In particular, the Quakers’ rapid success in the early 1650s was often conducted in competition with Baptist congregations and in that context there werevery serious divisions over family authority, with the Baptists being very angry if the women left for the Quakers and denying that their husbands, if they’ve said, women sometimes said, ‘my husband made me do it’ and Baptist ministers would then urge the women to disobey their husbands, and all that created a sense that social dislocation, social upheavals, were being encouraged by religious liberty.

In the chaos after Cromwell’s death in September 1658, religious divisions and their consequences were amongst the motivations for people who, in the end, turned with some reluctance to the Restoration of the monarchy.

[44.52]   Diggers and Ranters had largely disappeared by the Restoration anyway, and Fifth Monarchists did not long survive their 1661 ill-planned and ill-supported rising. Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists, however, had built identities, doctrinal definition and organisational strength in these years of freedom, so they could survive the years of persecution after 1660 and emerge into legality through the Toleration Act of 1689 that followed the glorious, so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.
For Presbyterians, the road to becoming a denomination was rockier and winding. Presbyterians had been opposed to the sects and to the army that backed them throughout the 1640s, although in the 1650s they were somewhat reconciled under Oliver Cromwell, and Presbyterians played a major role in bringing about the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Again, they hoped to complete a National Reformation, but they were soon, in their view, betrayed and most zealous Puritan Presbyterian clergy were thrown out of the Church in 1662, along with more radical ministers. And Presbyterians faced a generation of painful readjustment, before they gave up their hopes of creating a reformed national Church and became a dissenting organisation outside that Church.
[46.44] Mike Gibbs:

Finally, how would you summarise the outcome of this period of religious confusion?

  Ann Hughes:

Despite the Restoration of the Episcopal Church by 1662, religious pluralism amongst English Protestants was permanently established during the years of Civil War and revolution. The monopoly of the Episcopalian Church could not be re-established through persuasion or persecution in the 1660s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

The gulf between Church and Chapel, Anglican Church and dissenting congregations marked English and Welsh political, social and cultural life from the 17th to 20th centuries.

  Mike Gibbs:

Professor Hughes, thank you for so clearly guiding us through a very confused – and potentially confusing – period of British history when, as you have clearly shown, religion and religious differences were so important in dividing the three kingdoms.
Thank you again.