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Lectures on the First Prayer Book of King Edward VI.

by Morgan Dix
Rector of Trinity Church, New York

New York: Young and Co., 1881.


IN my last lecture I gave a brief account of our First English Prayer Book. I now proceed to one of the strangest episodes in the history of our Church; I must relate the story of its banishment from its place. On the 9th of June, A.D. 1549, it came into use throughout the realm. On the 14th of April, A.D. 1552, Parliament (not the Church, remember) substituted another volume in its stead. Of all remarkable transactions this seems one of the most remarkable. The suddenness of the change suggests enquiry as to the reasons for it, and this enquiry has been met with divers answers.

Look at the facts. Here is a volume which has been many years in preparing, and stands every test to which such a work can be put. It is set forth with commendations so high that they have even a religious cast. Yet almost immediately a revision is begun. That revision appears to have been, completed before the end of the year 1551, or within about eighteen months. And such a revision! As if an Arctic blast had suddenly struck a field of flowers, blossoms, and swelling fruit, and smitten it from end to end! How shall we account for a phenomenon so strange? No wonder that one view has been taken, which I shall state only to protest against it.

It is surmised, and has been said, that this was but the carrying out of a plan previously agreed on; that the First Book was set forth as a temporary thing, and, as it were, by way of a feeler of public opinion, by men who would at once have gone all lengths had they dared; that its authors were not satisfied with it, that they intended to revise it, that the revision was substantially agreed to before the doomed volume was published, and that the delay was due to prudential considerations. Now, if any other view can reasonably be taken, I would take it, rather than this.

For this would be simply horrible if it were true. Such disingenuousness, such duplicity, would stamp as base the characters of all concerned. We cannot believe this of the English Reformers. It cannot be true; for then the words of the Act of Uniformity would be sheer blasphemy, and their whole action from first to last a lie. You know how knaves, plotting, give each other the wink or the sign to show how their fellows are to take what they may be saying or doing; but I submit that manners like these are not to be attributed to the divines to whom we owe that admirable volume which they subsequently permitted to be defaced. It cannot be that they were whispering to one another the while: "This will do for the present; we had better stop here for the moment; next year we will try it again; meanwhile we understand each other and hoodwink the rest." Is there any other view than this? There is one, at least, which saves the honor of the men concerned; as for their wisdom or consistency, that is another question. Let us then ask another and a less degrading explanation of the strange problem before us. "What was going on in England between the years 1540 and 1553 was this: a reformation from the errors of the Romish system. Now it is a well-known peculiarity of such reforms, whenever attempted, that the persons engaged in them tend to extremes. The reaction from a system which has corrupted the very springs and sources of Religion, and deranged the order of the Kingdom of Christ, is always violent and dangerous. That ancient sacerdotal and sacramental system which was instituted by our Blessed Lord, is liable to be defiled by human inventions; the reaction from those inventions and perversions of the truth is logically toward a rejection of the entire system. This has been the case always and everywhere; on that account men have come to doubt the success of any movement toward reform in Roman Catholic countries. In Italy, some fifteen years ago, the efforts of an Italian Catholic Reform party attracted attention; those efforts were soon blighted by the spirit of radical change. In Mexico, in our own day, an attempt at reform is in progress; but thus far with dubious results, as appears from the fact that the present outcome has been lauded and glorified by one of our own partisan prints as "the great modern example of a pure anti-sacerdotal and anti-sacramental Protestant Christianity." And in Germany and Switzerland, among the "Old Catholics," as they are called, the same struggle is in progress to keep back the radicals, to save the things that remain, that are ready to die, to resist that fatal drift of which Bishop Herzog spoke, when he said that the danger is lest they throw off all churchly ways and wind up in mere rationalism. Remember this, the instant a movement of reform begins in the heart of the Romish Communion, that instant the tendency is to a radical extreme, in which priesthood, sacraments, ritual, and the institutions of Christianity are swept away; they who begin by rejecting the supremacy of the Pope and the worship of the Virgin are tempted to reject other things one after another, and finally everything else--the Episcopacy, the Priesthood, Confession, the Sacraments, the Real Presence, Baptismal Regeneration, Ritual, Vestments, Lights, Choral Service, and, in short, all that differentiates Catholicism from the multifarious religions professed among men. The drift is inevitable, first to a bald Protestantism chiefly made up of negations, and thence to Scepticism, and Infidelity, its legitimate offspring. All history attests these facts; the story is monotonously recited; and this explains why, in Roman Catholic lands, the terms "Protestant" and "Freethinker" are convertible terms, because it is observed that whenever a man breaks off from the old system, the tendency is to run down an incline, at the bottom of which lies the stagnant pool of Infidelity.

Now reflect: in England they were trying, in those clays, to work out their deliverance from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and those evils which were peculiar to the Roman type of Catholic Christianity. They had to contend, first with the difficulty inseparably connected with every effort of the kind; and in fact there soon appeared, as a matter of course, an Anti-Church party, dissatisfied with every thing, and desirous of sweeping and complete changes. But there was another trouble, which aggravated the first. Before the tide of the Reformation struck the British coast, it had swept through Germany and Switzerland, doing its characteristic work. It had ceased, long before, to be a genuine Catholic reform; it had wrought a deep, radical change, heaping its path with ruin. Shaking communities to the very bones and marrow, it exhibited, as the result of its work, a right, a left, and a centre of disorganization--Lutheranism on the right, Zwinglianism on the left, and Calvinism between. Of these the Lutheran system was the least objectionable. Its founder never intended to make a new Church; he was as guiltless of that as Wesley was of setting up the rival "Methodist Episcopal Church "of our time. Lutheranism retained the Altar and its worship; it was faithful to the doctrine of the Real Presence; it kept the churches much as they were of old. For these reasons, the Lutherans were mistrusted and thoroughly disliked by the more radical reformers; they were railed at by progressives and extremists as men who, once started, dared not go on. The Zwinglian was at the opposite end of the line; the representative of anti-sacerdotal, anti-sacramental, anti-church, I had almost said anti-Christian ideas; no priest, no altar, no mystery, no grace-conferring ordinance for him; the Holy (?) Communion was but a memorial meal, and other rites were signs to faith of work previously done by God without their aid. Calvinism was not so bad as that; there were in. it more warmth, more devotion, higher and more spiritual views; yet how far was it from the old religion! In no one of these three systems do we find a reformed Catholicism. On the left extreme it was torn up by the roots. The Lutheran held, indeed, a high Sacramental doctrine, but straightway annulled it by his tenet about justification by faith; for he said that what saves a man is his own firm and unshaken belief that he, personally, is sure of being saved; and thus, although he retained the Ritual of the Altar and believed in the Presence, yet these were only of use to stir up, enliven, and fortify that all-important tenet of his about his own perfect security. The Calvinist saw no value in sacraments, except as signs and seals of the elect; for he held his tenets of predestination and election, effectual calling and perseverance, and limited redemption, and in these he thought he had the clew to the mysteries of eternal life. Thus did each of those systems in turn abolish the old and bring in a new thing; they differed in their methods, but reached the same result at last.

Besides all this, whether it were through their own fault or through their misfortunes, these three bodies were effectually cut off from the ecclesiastical organization of the Catholic Church by the fatal want of the Apostolic Succession. Luther appears to have submitted unwillingly to what he could not help; the rest rather gloried in it. The Calvinists and Zwinglians seem to have delighted in forming "churches;" they were incessantly busy over their disciplines, directories, orders, and miscellaneous inventions, trying to work out to "the purest type of Church in Christendom." And thus had the Reformation on the Continent filled the land with mere wrecks of the old institutions of Christianity, in the place of which were growing up customs, and ways, and structures ecclesiastical such as had never been seen before that day.

Now, it was perfectly natural that the Reformers in England should be brought into contact with these mistaken and irregular folk abroad. It came first, not of religious sympathy, but of political necessity. Henry VIII. and Cranmer were no Protestants; but both saw the importance of establishing political relations with the German princes. Great things were hoped every way, on the Continent, from the breach between England and the Vatican; there must be alliance of heart and mind, of arms and forces, between the Protestant States abroad and the King who had bearded his Holiness. See what elements we have already to breed trouble and confusion. In England is an Anti-church party, prejudiced, angry, violent, which the Bishops and Clergy could hardly restrain. Then there were political alliances with foreign powers, which were sure to lead to closer religious relations; those relations must inevitably accelerate the rate of change. Was it in human nature to resist such forces? To do so would have required supernatural wisdom, virtue, and equanimity. As a matter of fact, adequate resistance was not made; the leaders gave way, the door was pushed open by degrees, and, one by one, dangerous persons were let in. Although the alteration of the Prayer Book was not due exclusively to the interference of the foreigners, yet there can be no doubt that they had much to do with bringing it about. I must give some account of these men who intermeddled in our affairs, some of them doing their work from across the Channel, others living in England, whither they came on invitation, and where they were settled in positions which gave them a strong-leverage on the community, with whom they were in daily and hourly contact. And for the mischief they made we have to blame those who, from high places of responsibility and power, aided and abetted this importation instead of repelling them as they should have done and keeping their own way without brooking interference.

The moment a religious change begins, that moment there is danger. Old things are not to be replaced by new without strife and pain. It is like a start down a heavy grade; you want a strong hand at the brakes. In England, at the beginning of the reign of Edward VI., they wanted that above all else, a strong hand at the brakes, some commanding mind and will to check the movements ere they became too violent, some one to hold in runaways, to drive back on the lines deserters from the old standards. There is a morbid and unreasoning hate of Romanism which always drives men to extremes; it makes them account as a prophet of God whoever shouts most vociferously against ancient errors, even though he thrust modern errors as many, and worse, into their place. Now, in the times of which we are speaking, the brakemen were not there, or else they had not the force, if they had the will, to do what they ought to have done, and so the train rushed on headlong. Worse than that, there were those in high places whose aim seems to have been to accelerate the speed and dash down the plane regardless of the end. We have, in our current speech, a word which every one understands; it is so apt, that one may use it to save explanations. Unfortunately for England the management of her affairs at that time was in the hands of what we should call nowadays, a Ring; among the leading motives of that Ring were hate of Catholic practice and admiration of the Swiss, German, and French Reformers, and these were deepened by supreme selfishness and a sacrilegious greed of Church property. I call it a Ring, and correctly. There is ample evidence that the things they did were not done by general sanction, but in spite of the wishes of the great body of the clergy and people. They dared not face Convocation; they carried on their so-called work of reformation without consulting any but those already committed to the movement; opposition was crushed by the secular power. On flew the train, passing the old landmarks one by one, careless of the danger-signals; nor can we doubt where it would have brought up, had not Almighty God at last stopped it short, and, for the time, broken it to pieces. Had there been a bridge across the Channel, or a tunnel under it, that train would have shot over or through, or under, and never stopped short till it had landed its entire contents in Zurich, Frankfort, or Geneva.

Let us look at the composition of this Reforming Ring. At its head was the monarch, Jane Seymour's son, a precocious boy, ten years of age. It is said by the poet that "a boy's will is the wind's will." This royal boy had a will of his own; he was Tudor to the backbone; and he probably knew about as much of theology as one of our budding candidates for Holy Orders in the Junior class in the Seminary. He was fanatical and wrong-headed; his religion was of the strong Protestant type. "When the question of a new Prayer Book came up, and he was told that the Church in Convocation would be sure to oppose the movement, his reply substantially was this: that he did not care for Church or Convocation; the new Prayer Book he was resolved to have, and if the Convocation objected he would have it by Act of Parliament, without the Church's leave.

Next comes the Duke of Somerset, the Protector. [1] This man had as little of the Catholic in him as possible. It is an open question whether he had any religion, but what he had was Calvinistic. He corresponded with Calvin, who plied him with letters written in the characteristic style of his school. The tone of these letters showed that they perfectly understood each other, and that Calvin counted on Somerset as a friend to what he called the true, pure religion, and an ally in completing the work in England which Calvin had greatly at heart. What they meant by the pure and undefiled Gospel, we all know very well; how it squares with Sacramental and Sacerdotal Catholicism we also know.

Then there were three prominent persons who appear as leading members of that band of agitators; three men especially transplanted and set down in England in the interests of the radical reformers. One was Martin Bucer, a Lutheran, comfortably settled at Cambridge; the second was Peter Martyr, a Calvinist, as firmly established at Oxford; and the third a Polish dissenter, named John a Lasco, whom we find in London. Not one of these men was in sympathy with the old Churchmen of England; two of them were even ignorant of the English language. Of the trio, the least objectionable was Bucer; he held the higher Lutheran views of the Sacrament of the Altar, and was, in that respect, nearer to the truth; but for that very reason he was an object of suspicion and dislike to his brethren reformers, who regarded him as not wholly and purely evangelical, and were greatly annoyed at his persistency in pointing out their errors and refusing to give in to them. While Bucer lived, he was a thorn in the side of the radical school; he would not follow them to the point at which they aimed; his death, which occurred February 27, 1551, was admitted by them to be a great relief; even while they shed tears at the memory of that saintly man. Leaving Martin Bucer out of the question, as one who retained something of the old Catholic temper and faith, the remaining members of this mischievous little band were what would now be styled mere Protestant dissenters; absolute impracticables, extreme men.

To these we must add another strange character, whose name appears on the records of that day. At Glastonbury there was one Walrond Pullein. This man, a native of France, had a congregation of French refugees, known as the Church of the Strangers; a little conventicle of reformers of the most ultra type. They rejected all churchly ways; their form of worship was peculiar to themselves. The Communion was with them a mere memorial feast; they always spoke of it as "the Supper," and received it sitting at tables. Their ideas of religion and theology, of order and divine worship, the amount of their respect for Catholic tradition, the degree of their attachment to the Historic Church, may be inferred from this sample of their proceedings.

Such as these were the men who got foot in England, and exercised an influence there which would be astonishing but for the known history of the progress of religious changes. It was to these in great part that the defacement of the Prayer Book was due; the vain hope of conciliating them worked its usual wretched results. Any one could tell in advance what men of that ilk would say, and how they would talk; nor would it be easy to set any bounds to the mischief that they could do, in times of high excitement, wherein multitudes had completely lost their heads. And now if it be asked how such people ever came there, and who was responsible for their presence, the answer which must be made is sufficiently mortifying. They came by the invitation of persons high in place, who, though previously shy of that class of men, unfortunately ended by sending for them, and giving them every facility for residing at their ease in England and doing what they most of all desired to do. Among the persons by whom that fatal blunder was made, none is more conspicuous than Archbishop Cranmer.

There is a way of idolizing men for their misfortunes, which blinds the eyes to their errors. Such hero-worship, however, does not last; the hour comes when the eyes are opened, and justice is done to the conspicuous personages of history, but nothing more. I deeply commiserate him, who, notwithstanding all the light that now beats on the pages of our ecclesiastical annals, can still regard Thomas Cranmer as a hero or a saint. This is not the time to paint his picture, and so demonstrate the truth of what has been justly said, that his appeal to the Church, from his place of execution, is "not for honor but for pardon." I have to do, at present, only with his conduct of affairs during the troublous times of the boy-King. He erred for lack of moral courage; he erred through inconsistency. It is matter of notoriety how often and how fast he changed his views. He seems to have been conscientiously in doubt on those points of theology which constituted the "burning questions "of that day; burning indeed, in a grim and frightful sense, for men were burnt alive if they differed on them from the party which happened to be uppermost. By the discordant cries of the Lutheran, the Calvinist, and the Zwinglian, Cranmer appears to have been honestly perplexed. It was not the temper that the times demanded in the Primate of All England. And again, he was all his life in bondage, unable to resist the violent Tudor temper, or the frowns and threats of a mercenary, godless, and bloody nobility. All this must be said if the truth is to be told. It is a difficult and delicate matter to speak about; but no harm comes of honesty. Had Cranmer been a man of a different temper, all might have taken another shape. Had he not been an Erastian, a mere tool in Henry's hands in the abominable business of his divorces, and a waverer in his theological opinions, all might have been different. Had he died in defence of the ancient Catholic Faith and Order, as a great predecessor and namesake did, resisting the fury of a King, or braving, like Archbishop Laud, the rage of a fanatical popular movement, how glorious might have been his name!

It is said by Heylin, the historian, that when at an early stage in the English Reformation Calvin sent over a message offering his assistance, Cranmer promptly declined it. "He knew the man and refused the offer." If that be true, one can but regret that he ever changed front. But certain it is that later he himself sent for Bucer, Martyr, and others, to come and help him. On his invitation they appeared; by him Bucer was settled in a professor's chair in the University of Cambridge, and Martyr made Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Imagine this! Professors of Divinity! Lecturers on Theology, instructors of the young men looking for Holy Orders! Yet this was done by Cranmer, who urged them to come, and paid their travelling expenses, and gave each a good living and a position of influence. With him also the impracticable Pole, a Lasco, stopped, on first coming into England, whether invited to Lambeth or forcing himself on the hospitality of the Archbishop does not appear, but it is evident that the unfortunate Prelate was in full sympathy with such men as this. They spoke of him as their patron, exalted him to the skies, and hopefully discussed among themselves his varying frames of opinion, congratulating one another in their letters that the Archbishop was improving, and getting clearer views of the Gospel, and becoming daily more like themselves.

To one who loves the old Catholic Order and Faith, these things are distressing to read about; no such person can feel in sympathy with such movements as this. Not even the High Churchman of the old-fashioned type can with consistency approve of what was done then and there; for there is not an item in the code of high church principles which the meddling foreigners did not, as a rule, contemptuously reject. The Apostolic Succession. Sacramental Grace, Liturgical Worship, Rites and Ceremonies such as we now use, the Sign of the Cross, the use of special vestments, kneeling at the Sacrament, the Altar as distinguished from a table, all these were most offensive to them. Yet there they were, in favor in high quarters, and all as busy as bees writing letters by every mail, in active correspondence with their old friends on the Continent and their new friends in England, talking the usual jargon about the "pure gospel," and the "truth," and "the glory of God," and the "detection of the mystery of the iniquities of Antichrist." And chief of all things in their minds seems to have been this: to get the Prayer Book revised and purified, that Book which they denounced as still filled with the germs of Romanism and the remnants of the old corruptions of "the Babylonian Bel." So they kept stirring up the people and increasing the confusions of the hour; and if we say that the Primate was responsible for what next and afterward befell, it does not seem to be unfair; but, fair or not fair, one thing is certain, that the charge is not met by a mere denial of facts which are matter of record in the documents of that age.

There is another man of whom I must give some account by way of illustration of this melancholy history. But it is too late to speak of him this evening; let us defer till the next time what is to be said of John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester. When you are sufficiently informed of his character and views, of the principles which he represented and the influence he wielded, you will better understand what I mean in saying that the life of the Church of England was reduced to the lowest ebb it ever reached just before the death of Edward VI. For the present it must suffice to remark in advance, that under the pressure of all those influences, the Lutheran and Calvinist, the Zwinglian and Erastian, the ruin was nearly completed, and the Catholic Religion, in. the year 1553, was on its death-bed. Let me conclude by saying what may perhaps be in order after wading through such miry waters.

It is this: that if proof be asked by any one that the Church of England is indeed a church of God, that she is in living, vital communion with the great universal Church of Christ, that proof is given by the way in which she has been saved in times which would have wrecked any work of man. The history is altogether marvellous; its legend might be taken from the prophet: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel thy Saviour" (Isaiah xliii., 2, 3). It has come home to our dear mother, again and again, the depth, the sorrow, the joy, the strength, of this great word of the Holy Ghost. Thrice has she passed through the waters, through the raging, raving torrents, thrice has she come through fire, and as often has the Lord shown Himself to be her God. Looking back from our own day, we see, first, that dreary Georgian era, when the Erastian and the Latitudinarian held her down and all but strangled her; farther still we descry the day of the Great Rebellion, when, under Cromwell and his Puritan Commonwealth, she was effaced and struck into silence and darkness. Those were terrible days; but, before them, is another crisis still darker. It is that which we have been considering, when madness ruled the hour, and when the young life, which had just been saved from the oppressive yoke of Roman tyranny, seemed likely to be destroyed in its first flower. Worse than either of the great storms that followed was that cyclone which blew from 1549 to 1553, filling the air with fragments of wreck, and threatening to shave clean the surface of the ground, till nothing standing should be left thereon. Yet in each of those reigns of terror, God stretched forth His Arm, restraining the destroyer, bringing deliverance: it is a proof that she was indeed elect and precious in His sight, His true child, dearly beloved and longed for. The study of the sorrows of her who hath borne us in her womb and nourished us at her breasts, though in itself distressing, hath yet this advantage; that it gives us the proof of her true descent from Apostolic ancestry, and assures us of the great love of our Lord for her. Let this be to us a potent inducement to be loyal to her cause, and to devote whatever powers we possess to the advancement of her interests and the welfare of her children.

[1] Of the "gang of unprincipled robbers" that surrounded Edward VI., none was more rapacious than this man. He demolished the residences of three bishops and desecrated their chapels to make houses and pleasure grounds for himself; he destroyed the chapel and burial-place in St. Paul's Churchyard and used the bones for manure; he threatened to appropriate and destroy Westminster Abbey. He was one of the instruments of bringing his own brother to the block, and richly deserved the same fate. Yet this is one of the men whom partisans have glorified, and, for aught I know, continue to glorify, as a saint and a light of the Reformation.

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