Skip to comments.A Moral Vision [Oliver Cromwell, the American Revolution, and Pluralism]
Posted on 01/02/2007 2:45:50 PM PST by Alex Murphy
One of the great puzzles to foreign observers of the U.S. political and religious scene is how an overtly religious political movement can flourish in a country, which, more than any other Western nation, has maintained clear blue water between church and state and has an unequivocal, even dogmatic, attachment to the principle of religious liberty. The two tendencies seem incompatibleseem like they shouldnt both emerge from the same society. Part of the explanation is to be found by examining seventeenth-century England and the policies of the great Puritan general and statesman, Oliver Cromwell.
Part I of this article explored Cromwells intervention in foreign nations domestic affairs to preserve the liberties of Protestant minorities, and his role in allowing Jews to live in England after four centuries during which their presence had been illegal. However, as we will see, his commitment to religious liberty was combined with an inclination toward social repression. These two apparently contradictory impulses could flourish within the same man because they emerged from the same worldview; and that Cromwellian worldview was eventually transmitted to influential groups in North America, by whom it was preservedand has been revived in some forms today.
So often history provides important insights into current issues. But there are important differences, too, between Cromwell and the leaders of the modern U.S. Religious Right; were they to embrace more fully their Cromwellian legacy, it might modify their aims and make them more libertarian.
Cromwells support for the Vaudois, Huguenots, and Jews was not an isolated incident. It was no coincidence that the poet John Milton (himself an unusually radical proponent of religious liberty) addressed a sonnet to Cromwell after his final military victories in 1651, urging him to emancipate Englands Christian minorities:
new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains.
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw. 1
Milton knew his man. Even on his deathbed Cromwell cried out in concern at what fate might now befall the poor protestants of the Piedmont, in Poland and other places. 2 Significantly, however, his concern was not just for fellow believers. Throughout his preeminence in the English Republic and his reign as Lord Protector, Cromwell consistently championed the right of all minority religious groupsnot just Protestantsto practice their faith as they saw fit.
This was extremely unusual. Across Christendom it was taken for granted that any nation must be confessionally unitary or fall into chaos. In England, Cromwell differed from many of his fellow Calvinists. Most were Presbyterians, who, though persecuted themselves by the established national church in the 1630s, were opposed to any kind of religious liberty. Cromwell was of the so-called Independents, forerunners of the Congregationalists, but even they generally placed clear limits on toleration.
For example, almost no Protestant advocates of toleration, initially not even Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, favored extending toleration to Catholics. There was also extreme reluctance to allow liberty of worship to those who, although Protestant in sympathy, either were not orthodox in their Christianity, or were extreme in their social radicalism or apocalypticism: anti-Trinitarians, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists, seventh-day Sabbatarians, Ranters, and, at the start of the period, Baptists, although as the 1650s wore on, they were increasingly accepted into the ranks of the godly (as zealous Protestants called themselves).
Cromwell in theory probably espoused formal toleration only for Protestant sects, but he was adamantly opposed to any religious persecution. He thought it incompatible with Christs example in the Gospels. He knew that todays subjects of persecution sometimes turn out to be tomorrows Christian martyrs. Then, too, he was able to conceive that a firmly, honestly held doctrinal opinion might simply be wrong.
In 1650 Oliver Cromwell wrote to the leaders of the Church of Scotlandrigorously and intolerantly Presbyterianin an effort to end war between England and Scotland, bidding them consider whether, even though they had established themselves upon the Word of God, all that they said was therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God . I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. 3 Although not broadminded enough to countenance the possibility that he might be mistaken, the whole tone of this letter, acknowledging that different people could read the same Scriptures sincerely, yet genuinely arrive at two quite different interpretations, is a million miles away from the typical medieval and early-modern attitudes toward truth and error. Even Cromwells willingness to reason in a Christian spirit with his confessional enemies is in sharp contrast to the normal, fiercely polemical, tone of post-Reformation interconfessional dialogue (and arguably, too, of the strident declarations of todays so-called Religious Right).
So strong was Cromwells horror of persecution that in practice he extended toleration, whenever he could, to all religious persuasionsagainst the opposition of many Puritan leaders, who had expected their victory in the civil wars to give them free rein. As Milton forecast in his famous poem On the New Forcers of Conscience, they planned to use
the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free. 4
But they had not reckoned on Cromwells opposition.
Using his powers as Lord Protector, he vetoed a parliamentary bill providing for compulsory attendance at an Anglican, Baptist, or Calvinist church on Sundays. As Lord Protector he had no power of pardon, but strove to mitigate the intolerance of his associates in government. When the anti-Trinitarian spokesman John Biddle (often known as the father of English Unitarianism) was imprisoned in the remote Scilly Isles in 1655, he received a weekly stipend of 10 shillings (a sizable sum for the time) from Cromwells own private funds, to ameliorate the conditions of his imprisonment. Cromwell also probably helped to protect the Quaker leader James Nayler, who in October 1656 re-created Christs entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by riding into Bristol (Britains second-largest city) on a donkey, while his followers laid branches in his path and cried Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabbaoth. It was probably a symbolic act, a piece of religious theater, rather than an actual claim to be Jesus Christ. But contemporaries missed any dramatic subtleties or ironies and perceived only blasphemyhorrid blasphemy as a parliamentary resolution characterized it, for the crime was felt to be so egregious that only Parliament could deal with it. Cromwell stayed out of the debates over how severely Nayler should be punished (in the end he was branded, flogged, and jailed), but the narrow defeat of a bill to execute the Quaker probably reflects Cromwells influence, exercised behind the scenes.
Cromwell thought it politically impossible to extend formal liberty of worship to Roman Catholics, and he accepted a parliamentary act for the confiscation of Catholics property. However, as he wrote to a French cardinal in December 1656, he had personally intervened to pluck many [Catholics] out of the raging fire of persecution, which did tyrannise over their consciences and encroach by arbitrariness of power over their estates, and was determined gradually to do more to let them practice their faith5 It is notable that, though it was a capital offence simply to be a Roman Catholic priest in England, only one priest was executed during the Protectorate: John Southworth (declared a saint by the Vatican in 1970). This death toll is in sharp contrast to the reigns of both James I and Charles Igenerally seen as sympathetic to the plight of Englands Catholic minority. It was Cromwell, the zealous Puritan, who halted the hunt for Catholic priests. Southworth was hanged, drawn and quartered under the terms of a commuted sentence from a 1630 trial, rather than subject to new proceedings. Unable to commute the sentence, Cromwell did what he could: he provided surgeons to sew the disemboweled and quartered body back together, and he returned it for burial to Douai College, the seminary for English émigré priests in the Low Countries. The only corpse of an English Catholic martyr to survive to modern times is testimony to Oliver Cromwells opposition to religious persecution.
And yet despite this impressive recorddespite, too, the fact that Cromwell was the only ruler in seventeenth-century England who did not impose censorship on the presshe was to impose on England, briefly, the most repressive regime in its history. The 350th anniversary of the end of this episode is upon us and inevitably prompts reflection as to how it could have originated with this great champion of religious liberty.
What became known as the rule of the Major-Generals was imposed in the late summer of 1655. Cromwell, who had himself been elected three times as a member of the House of Commons, and was twice to reject proposals that he take the throne as king rather than rule as Lord Protector, was never happy ruling without a legislature. As Lord Protector he called two parliaments, elected on a franchise more democratic than Britain (or many American states) enjoyed again before the mid-nineteenth century. We see here again Cromwells commitment to liberty. But Cromwells regime was always underpinned by the threat of pike and musket. When Parliament resisted the governments tax program and Cromwells wish to impose Reformed values on the population at large, he imposed government by his generals.
In AugustSeptember 1655, even as Menasseh Ben Israel traveled to London to request readmission for the Jews, England and Wales were divided into a dozen districts and a Major-General commissioned for each, with authority over all troops and tax-collection in his area and a wide range of other powers and instructions. They actually administered their regions only until September 1656, when the second Protectoral parliament began its sessions; in January 1657 the episode was definitively ended when Parliament rejected a bill for continuation of the Major-Generals rule. In this period, effectively just a year, they generated enough hostility not only to ensure that their authority was short-lived, but also to create a long-standing suspicion of standing armies that was to be transmitted from Britain to North America, where it produced a pronounced preference for a citizen militia. It in turn produced the constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms; the controversy this still generates is thus one of the legacies of Cromwells experiment in military government.
There were a number of reasons that the Major-Generals regime was so unpopular, but the most important was that, from the start, Cromwell intended the Major-Generals to achieve more than efficient government and enhanced security. They were also meant to enforce Puritan standards of behavior on the wider populace. Each Major-General was instructed not only to suppress rebellions, enforce law and order, and maintain surveillance of disaffected persons, but also to promote godliness and virtue and discountenance all profaneness and ungodliness. 6
To achieve this, the Major-Generals worked with local communities of the godly, embracing both Presbyterians and the more libertarian Independents/Congregationalists, as well as some Baptists. These coalitions of the (self-proclaimed) righteous were exactly what Cromwell wanted and, with his encouragement, they set out to create a godly society.
Adulterers and fornicators were prosecuted, as well as prostitutes. The organizers and audiences of cockfights and dog-and-bear fights were fined, which accords with modern values; but those who wrestled, tossed quoits and horseshoes, or gambled, or who on Sunday (the Sabbath) raced horses or played the ancestors of football and cricket, could also find themselves in court. Celebrating traditional festivals condemned by the Puritans as pagan, such as May Day, and, in some parts of Britain, Christmas, might also result in arrest and legal action. Clergymen whose liturgical practices departed from those sanctioned by Calvinism were reprimanded or dismissed. The opening hours of alehouses and taverns were greatly restricted, and many were forcibly closed down. Finally and menacingly, vagabonds and beggars began to be rounded up and compulsorily put to workin a few cases, even transported as slave laborers to the plantations of Virginia.
Cromwell was delighted. He told Londons city council in March 1656 that the entire country had become stronger in virtue, while six months later, addressing the opening session of the second Protectoral Parliament, he declared that the Major-Generals efforts had been more effectual towards the discountenancing of vice and settling of religion than anything done these fifty years. 7 Yet for all the Lord Protectors enthusiasm, his efforts and those of the Major-Generals and local Puritans actually had a negligible effect nationwide. Drinking, debauchery, begging, football, gambling, horseracing, and Maypole dancing never stopped, because people didnt want them to stop.
The population in general did not share the vision of the religious radicalsrather, they resented and resisted it. The religious cultural revolution Cromwell sought never came close to being achieved. Instead, the mobilization of unpopular Puritan cliques to purge local society of allegedly irreligious and immoral elements only made the Major-Generals so unpopular that their rule forever tainted, in popular perception, government by the military. It also helped to discredit Puritanism in many regions of England, leading to the relocation of the vision of a godly nation, instead, to New England.
The obvious question that arises is how the same statesman who, without thought of national gain, intervened on behalf of distant, suffering minorities and constantly overrode prejudice in his own country could nevertheless impose on it such an authoritarian form of government, if only temporarily; and how he could impose such unparalleled constraintswhile at the same time allowing such unprecedented liberty.
Oliver Cromwell believed that he had been called by providence, like Moses and Gideon, to lead Gods people in troublesome times. It was his certainty that he knew Gods will and was the agent of providence in carrying it out that empowered him to carry out unprecedented actions such as overthrowing and executing the king, and granting religious liberty to those whom existing Protestant proponents of toleration thought outside the pale. But it is also what drove him to impose direct rule by the military and the godly. This is why his most recent biographer sums Cromwell up as endlessly appealing and endlessly alarming he was true to his own vision and would follow it wherever it led. 8
In liberating Gods people (as he believed the English to be) from the political tyranny of King Charles I, Cromwell came to feel that he should free them, too, from religious tyrannybut that included freeing them from the tyranny of sin. In working toward these goals, Cromwell was frequently frustrated, but his sense of frustration arose from his societys immorality, as well as its intoleranceboth were antithetical to Christianity.
To Cromwell, liberty was important, but must not be abused. He sought to free the English people from narrow-minded, exclusivist concepts of religion, so that, in Miltons terms, no one whom Christ set free had their conscience forced. Cromwell was willing to extend that same freedom even to Catholics, Jews, and licentious and blasphemous nominal Protestants, because they were more likely to be brought to true religion by Christlike kindness than by persecution. But Cromwell understood Christian liberty for the nation to include the freedom of Gods children to resist vice and embrace godliness. 9 And so he was faced with the problem of what to do with those who abused the liberty of which he had been the political midwifethose who continued to live idolatrous, immodest, immoral, dissipated lives in defiance of all good example.
The solution to the problem was to allow liberty in one sector of peoples lives because this was doing honor to Gods will, but to impose repression in another sector of peoples lives because this, too, was honoring the divine purpose. Thus, religious emancipation went hand in hand with social repression.
By Cromwells standards, however, there was no inconsistency. His liberal and illiberal sides alike arose from his vision of a transformed Christian nation. This is important to note because it helps to explain the paradox of a radical Religious Right in a country notable for its commitment to religious liberty.
After the Restoration (1660), three of Cromwells former Major-Generals emigrated from England to the Puritan colonies of New England. We know they did not change their opinions, for on his death in 1658 one still confidently expected the imminent inauguration of rule by Christs saints and lamented the state of poor England whose sins are grown to a great height. We also know they had great influence in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where, a contemporary reported, they were held in exceeding great esteem and looked upon as men dropped down from heaven. 10 Increase Mather, the celebrated Congregationalist minister and later president of Harvard, studied theology in Britain during the Protectorate and was chaplain to a unit of Cromwells army. He played a significant role in the North American counterpart to the Glorious Revolution (1688): the major rebellions in New York, Maryland, and the New England colonies against expansion of royal authority and restriction of religious liberty. In Massachusetts the rebellion sought, as one historian puts its, a return to godly government based on the needs of a covenanted community 11 that is, to secure both political liberty and a godly society. Thus, we know that Cromwellian values survived in New England after their demise in England itself.
Eventually, though, the American Revolution produced a polity in which church and state were separatea separation formalized in the Bill of Rights, so that this separation is literally constituent of the United States of America. However, one reason that American colonists had come to believe that church and state should be separated was because the church meant the (Anglican) Church of England, which was unacceptable to the Puritans of New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, and so on. The separation of church and state, then, was evidence not of the demise of the Cromwellian ideal of a state that acted to promote godly behavior, but of a widespread assumption that truthful doctrine and proper actions were really promoted by the rivals to the established state church. Separation of church and state of course had many roots, including the influence of a number of deists among the framers of the Constitution, but one root was actually the enduring aspiration to create a godly societyand nation.
Making the United States into a truly Christian nation continued to be an aspiration of influential American Protestants into the mid-nineteenth century. As George Marsden argues, the administrators of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Chicago, Stanford, and Johns Hopkinsall founded as explicitly Protestant institutionshoped to create an informal established American church founded in a generic, nonsectarian Protestantism that seemed the ideal common faith for an already Christian people. Evangelism went hand in hand with various reform campaigns, including those against slavery and for temperance and universal public education, as part of a wider movement for the moral transformation of America society.12 The baton of the campaign for a godly nation was handed on in the early twentieth century with the series of booklets entitled The Fundamentals (19101915), from which Fundamentalism takes its name. These tracts were not only militant in their defense of biblical infallibility; they also urged the need to save Christian civilization in North America from decadence.
Thus, the conservative Christian coalition in the United States in the past 30 years has followed a well-trodden path, originating in the mid-seventeenth century. Many of the issues that impelled Cromwell to social intolerance and repression also drive the Religious Right. Its leaders and supporters, like Cromwell, feel anger at the prevalence and escalation of what seems immoral and irreligious in their nation; that anger is heightened by their belief that the United States was meant to be one nation under God. Like Cromwell, to transform the nation they want the reformist will of the godly to be backed up by the coercive power of the state. Of course, in twenty-first-century America, unlike seventeenth-century England, that option is not easily legally available. However, because todays politically active conservative Christians, like Cromwell, are certain that their aims are in keeping with Gods purpose, they are more willing to regard laws (even constitutional liberties) as mere obstacles to be overcome, rather than as fundamental freedoms. And like Cromwell (and their more recent nineteenth-century predecessors), they have created a broad-based coalition, transcending denominational particularity, and embracing even anti-Trinitarians, such as Mormons, in order to obtain their goals.
And yet, for all these comparisons, there are also notable contrasts. Cromwell differs from todays would-be forcers of conscience not least in what the historian John Morrill sums up as his sense of himself as the unworthy and suffering servant of a stern Lord. Cromwell was careless of his personal appearance, refused to become king, and genuinely wanted to return to his farm, but felt called by God to a public role. There is no comparison with those who bask in the adulation of large political rallies or televised megacongregations (and who thereby do no credit to the many genuinely Christian and humble conservative Evangelicals). At the end of his life Cromwell could say and mean: If here I may serve my God either by my doing or by my suffering, I shall be most glad. 13 Too many of todays evangelists or pastors turned lobbyists or politicians are keen to do and to do to others, forgetting that as Christians we may instead be called to suffer, whether actually or metaphorically.
One must also question how far the leaders of the Religious Right are committed to religious freedom. Support from conservative Christian congressmen for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (in face of opposition from the ACLU!) demonstrates respect for different faiths. But, as we have seen, many of Cromwells contemporaries had a limited commitment to toleration; what they lacked was Cromwells resolve to protect and defend not just those whose doctrines differed from his, but those whose beliefs and practices he found detestable. Since the 1990s, prominent Christian conservativesjudges, evangelists, legislatorshave made it clear that they regard Americas statutory separation of state and church as against the intentions of the Founding Fathers and thus ripe to be undone. 14 What might be the results if the First Amendment were to be repealed or radically reinterpreted by the courts? Studies have shown that, despite the Bill of Rights protection of equal opportunities, members of religious minorities in America have often felt obliged to hide (or change) their beliefs and denominational memberships, and minimize the expression of distinctive religious practices.15 Given this extensive practical intolerance, if the political representatives of conservative Christianity could place outright legal limits on the distinctive practices of those whose concept of faith is unpalatably different to their own, would moral renewal be all they would seek? Might Jehovahs Witnesses, Scientologists, Seventh-day Adventists, Moonies, or members of new religious movements find some restraints put on their freedom to practice their faith or to proselytize? The experience of anti-cult legislation in Europe in the 1990s shows how easily religious minorities can be demonized and subjected to repressive legislation. Do the leaders of the Religious Right share Cromwells commitment to pluck from the fire of persecution even confessional enemiessay so-called Christian homosexuals? Their rhetoric to date suggests they do not.
While in some ways Oliver Cromwell stands as a model for religious libertarians, his exceptionalism in championing the rights of minorities at home and abroad must not blind us to his enthusiasm for enforcing certain patterns of behavior. The Cromwellian legacy, then, is an ambivalent one. As so often where there is great certainty of belief, there also can be great intolerance. But Cromwell was committed, ultimately, to allowing freedom of thought and worship even to those whose views he abhorred. Those who seek to weaken the constitutional commitment to religious liberty in order to impose their values on the population at large are only living up to the least admirable and least successful side of the Cromwellian legacy.
Professor D.J.B. Trim teaches history at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, near London, England. He is an authority on the Cromwell era and the English Republic
1 To the Lord General Cromwell on the Proposals of Certain Ministers (1652), lines 11-14.
2 Quoted in John Morrill, Cromwell, Oliver, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), p. 346.
3 Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. Wilbur Cortez Abbott, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937-1947), 2:303.
4 On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament (1646), lines 5, 6.
5 Writings and Speeches, 4:368.
6 Quoted in Christopher Durston, Cromwells Major-Generals: Godly Government During the English Revolution (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 22 (spelling modernized).
7 Quoted in Ibid., p. 178.
8 Morrill, p. 351.
9 Ibid., p. 339.
10 Quoted in Durston, 44, 236 (spelling modernized).
11 David S. Lovejoy, Two American Revolutions, 1689 and 1776, in J.G.A. Pocock (ed.), Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 255.
12 George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
13 Morrill, 352 [emphasis mine].
14 E.g., Obiter, Liberty, May-June 2000; Michael Peabody, Toward a Medieval Model: Deconstructing the Constitution Restoration Act, Liberty, March-April 2006.
15 Gloria T. Beckley and Paul Burstein, Religious Pluralism, Equal Opportunity and the State, The Western Political Quarterly 44.4 (March 1991), 185.
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