Project Canterbury

Herbert Thorndike, 1598-1672
by T.A. Lacey

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter I. Time and Circumstance

THE divines of the English Church who lived during the years of trouble from 1640 to 1660 had strange experiences and varied fortunes. Some of the best temporized. John Pearson, after serving as chaplain with the royal armies in the West, made his peace with the ruling powers and obtained the charge of St. Clement's, Eastcheap, whence the rector, Benjamin Stone, had been ejected with cruel circumstance; there he delivered the discourses which were the foundation of his famous Exposition of the Creed, published in the year 1658. We must suppose him to have conformed to the standards of ministration exacted by Cromwell's Instrument of the Government and by the Assembly of Triers. There is evidence of similar conformity in the autobiography of Richard Baxter, who laboured to gather into his Worcestershire Association of Ministers those whom he called "Episcopals" as well as Presbyterians and Independents, and others who were, like himself, "mere Catholics." He would exclude none but the sequestrated "prelatists" whom Henry Hammond, from his retreat in Sir John Packington's house at Westwood, was encouraging to stand firm in the persecution, rather mean than violent, to which they were subjected. This complicated state of things must be kept in mind if we would understand the position of those who upheld in argument, if not in act, the order of the Church which had been shattered by the usurpation of the Parliament. The attempt of the Westminster Assembly to set up a new Calvinistic order had failed. As against the strict Presbyterians, Cromwell insisted on a considerable measure of toleration. The bishops and minor prelates were dispossessed of their endowments and forbidden the public exercise of their functions, the use of the Prayer Book was proscribed, but ministers admitted to benefices by the Triers were in other respects allowed a wide liberty. Of the old order the parochial system alone survived after a sort, but there were ministers in some parishes who recited without book parts of the forbidden liturgy, and there were some who resorted to one of the sequestrated bishops for the reception of holy orders.

Ralph Brownrigg, Bishop of Exeter, who had been a conforming Puritan in close theological agreement with the now dominant faction, and was in the year 1658 admitted preacher at the Temple Church, is known to have made a practice of ordaining such applicants. Richard Baxter, who appears to have been in correspondence with him about the famous Worcestershire Association, may have been one of these. [Powicke, A Life of the Rev. Richard Baxter, p. 171.] There is a noted difficulty about his ordination. He was ordained deacon under ordinary conditions in 1638, but did not then proceed to the priesthood because of scruples about the obligation of conforming to the Book of Common Prayer; [D.N.B., vol. iii, p. 432] his declaration at the Savoy Conference that he had been ordained by a bishop would be a verbal evasion quite foreign to his character if it were a reference to this ordination, and it is not improbable that he was raised to the priesthood by Ralph Brownrigg, who was neither able nor perhaps willing in the circumstances of the time to exact a promise of conformity. The ordination would necessarily be in some measure secret, since both parties would be liable to severe penalties. There was nothing dishonourable in this, for Baxter, although so hostile to what he called "the diocesan frame" as to refuse a bishopric after the Restoration, was in principle a moderate Episcopalian of the school of Ussher, regarding the confusion of the time in which his lot was cast as a mere passing phase, and pleading at the Savoy Conference for "Primitive Episcopacy."

With these temporizing churchmen we must contrast three groups of men who knew their own minds and would allow no compromise. There were the rigid Calvinists or Presbyterians, who had their hey-day in the early years of the Long Parliament, when alliance with the Scots was a political necessity, and the Solemn League and Covenant contemplated a religious establishment in the two countries based on the Genevan Ordinances taken as the divine and unalterable constitution of the Christian Church. They never had any hold on the English people, who loved not such absolutisms. There were the Independents, English by origin and English in temper, whose conception of the Gathered Church, exclusive and isolated, was found to be in England, as in Massachusetts, incompatible with a parochial system. Sharing the rise of Cromwell's army to power, they shared also the discredit of its tyranny. There were the convinced adherents of the old order, few in number but strong in a tradition of dominance and an unconquerable hope of restoration. In a sense, even restoration was not needed. Apart from some minor details, nothing in the old order had been changed by lawful authority; the surviving bishops were still, in law, charged with the administration of their dioceses; sequestrated curates still held the legitimate cure of souls within their parishes; the faithful still had an indisputable right to their services and to the authentic performance of divine worship in the parish churches. This seemly order of things was but interrupted by an intrusion of brute force; when the hindrance was removed, all sacred functions would be resumed. In the meantime, patience, varied by mild and ineffective attempts at the assertion of rights. Those unhappy weaklings who occasionally took up useless arms, and courageously paid the penalty, did not suppose themselves to be rising against a settled government; Robert Sanderson had been lecturing at Oxford, even while the King and the Court were there, upon the Christian duty of passive obedience even to an evident Usurper, but the Usurper in evidence had not made good his title even on that score; he was no more than an adventurer against whom other adventurers might reasonably measure their strength. Men of steadier mind deprecated these ebullitions, preaching patience and the certainty of better things to come. In the meantime, they could maintain their cause in argument, and might use rare opportunities for worship according to the standard which they upheld.

The sufferings of the loyal clergy were great, but have been grossly exaggerated. In his modestly entitled "attempt" to ascertain the names of sufferers, the industrious John Walker, sparing no pains, could not reach the number of three thousand, yet he freely quoted and believed the estimates of eight or nine thousand made by less scrupulous calculators. His lists, moreover, need careful combing. Not by any means all of those whom he enumerates were sufferers for conscience sake. The Committees of Parliament and other commissioners who did the work removed large numbers of "scandalous ministers," quite properly so called, whom the laxity or tenderness of the episcopal administration had overlooked; and if the puritan standards by which they were now judged may be reckoned in some cases unduly or even ludicrously severe, we are not to claim the victims of such judgment as martyrs or confessors. Others, again, were attacked on merely political grounds, and must be reckoned as suffering rather from party rancour than from religious persecution. It was a misfortune of the time that the two forms of hatred were easily confused. If the numbers have been exaggerated, so have the hardships. Anthony Wood rashly asserted that the "fifth" of the sequestrated endowments, reserved for the dispossessed and their families, was never paid. That some did not receive it is probable, but there is no evidence of general default. But when all reasonable deduction is made from partisan statements, there remains a huge record of wanton robbery, patiently endured on genuine religious grounds.

Laymen, even the most orthodox, seem to have been generally compliant with the times. We can follow the practice of John Evelyn after his return from foreign travel in the year 1652. He goes to church, as he ingenuously confesses, for fear of being taken for a Papist. At Sayes Court "tho" the Minister was Presbyterianly affected, he yet was as I understood duly ordain'd, and preach'd sound doctrine after their way, and besides was an humble, harmlesse and peaceable man." But he secured the services of a sequestrated priest to baptize his children and occasionally to administer the Holy Communion in his own house. He would go up to London to hear such a preacher as Jeremy Taylor, himself compliant, or "that excellent Prelate the Primate of Ireland (Jacob Ussher)," established at Lincoln's Inn. He attended the funeral of his mother-in-law, Lady Browne, at Deptford, "with all decent ceremonies, and according to the Church office, for which I obtained permission, after it had not been us'd in that Church of 7 yeares." He once heard "a tradesman, a mechanic," preach in his own parish church, "inferring that now the Saints were call'd to destroy temporal governments; with such feculent stuff." In 1655 he kept Easter at St. Gregory's in the City of London, "the Ruling Powers conniving at the use of the Liturgy, &c. in this church alone," and the following Christmas he enjoyed this privilege for the last time, "after which Cromwell's proclamation was to take place, that none of the Church of England should dare either to preach or administer Sacraments, teach schoole, &c. on paine of imprisonment or exile." In August the next year he "went to London to receive the B. Sacrament, the first time the Church of England was reduced to a chamber and conventicle, so sharp was the persecution." They met "in a private house in Fleete Streete," where was "a greate meeting of zealous Christians, who were generaly much more devout and religious than in our greatest prosperity." We hear, however, of Peter Gunning officiating at Exeter Chapel, which I cannot identify, and here on Christmas Day, 1657, the place was invaded by soldiers. "As we went up to receive the Sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action." All present were arrested; "Some they committed to the Marshall, some to prison." Evelyn himself was sharply questioned how he "durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the masse in English," but he escaped further molestation. It is significant that he found things worse than ever in the anarchy following Cromwell's death, "the poor Church of England breathing as it were her last, so sad a face of things overspread us."

Turning elsewhere, we catch a glimpse of Sir Ralph Clare at Kidderminster, a man to whose "great courtship and civility" and temperance of diet Richard Baxter bore witness. He made no difficulty of accepting the ministrations of one who had been lawfully appointed to the parish, but he begged leave to receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper "kneeling on a distinct day and not with those that received it sitting." Baxter, who was in later years to plead earnestly for the toleration of the two usages, refused this modest request; and he refused, not because there was any law or rule forbidding it, but because, as he elaborately explained, he himself thought it wrong. The refusal was arbitrary. If a man like Baxter could act in this way, it is easy to imagine the tyrannous behaviour of inferior men. The trouble was that a state of lawlessness existed, and lawlessness means tyranny. Such were the conditions under which faithful members of the Church were living, even when they patiently submitted themselves to the de facto government of the usurpation. Their lot would have been far worse if the Presbyterians had succeeded in setting up their system, for that would mean organized persecution; their possibilities of evasion lay in the absence of any settled order.

I am concerned, however, with the clergy, and in particular with those scholars and divines who in weary exile or in obscure poverty at home maintained by fearless argument the principles of that Church order which lay in apparently hopeless ruin. Here again the failure of Presbyterianism improved their position. They had not to attack a system entrenched in law and privilege; their work was defensive, for they could insist with reason that the old order had not been lawfully overthrown; it had been wrecked by mere disorder, and they could argue that it was bound to emerge from temporary chaos when the natural tendency of men towards orderliness should assert itself. They always spoke of it as still existing, even as a civil constitution persists in time of rebellion; they criticized in terms of rebellion, however cautiously veiled, all that was done by the triumphant faction which had them in its power. They even owed something to the more violent of that faction. Let Milton and his Areopagitica have credit for the access to the press which they unsparingly enjoyed. Moreover, there was some theological advantage in their tribulation. Unlike Hooker or Bancroft, unlike Laud in his day of power, they did not occupy an apparently secure position from which to repel mere forays of controversy; nor, on the other hand, had they to defend accidents of political privilege. For the moment all that was gone. They were forced back upon ultimate principles: the principles of Christian doctrine and practice, or indeed of fundamental and universal religion. That they could shake themselves entirely free from acquired prejudices was not to be expected, but they were compelled to examine these, and to correlate them with elementary Catholicity. The precedents of a hundred years, or indeed of all English history, no longer sufficed. They had to argue with the generality which had been the strength of Calvin's constructive theology. The appeal to the Primitive Church was not for them, as for Jewel, a mere weapon of controversy against-particular opponents; they had to bring to the same test, so far as it was applicable, the whole of that institutional religion which they were justifying, and they were bound to detect its flaws. They could not, therefore, be merely conservative, but must indicate possibilities of reform. In this respect their labours produced no immediate fruit, for the old order returned full flood, with all its imperfections, borne on the tide of political restoration, and they acquiesced. Nor must we forget, in sympathy for their sufferings, that Presbyterians and Independents had equally bad treatment to endure under the Restoration Parliament. But the seeds of principle, thrashed out by them in the time of distress, were laid up in store for sowing in the furrows of later and different troubles. When Hooker's theory of the identity of Church and State broke down under the persistence of Dissent, their more detached Catholicity became the inspiration of a period of reconstruction, and modern churchmanship owes more than it is aware of to the labours of those men who formulated the requirements of a Church politically in the wilderness. Not the least notable of them, though little known to-day, was Herbert Thorndike, with whose life and work is my present concern.

Project Canterbury