‘History’, said Henry Ford, ‘is more or less bunk’. The Roman statesman Cicero had a very different view: ‘he who is ignorant of what happened before he was born’, he declared, ‘is destined to remain always a child’.
But what benefit is there in a knowledge of history? To know that there was such a thing as the Battle of Bosworth is hardly beneficial. To know that it was fought in 1485, rather than, say, 1785 is helpful, but unlikely to be of great advantage in life.
For that knowledge to carry any meaning, one must know about the parties that fought, the situation at the time, and, most importantly, the nation’s circumstances before and after, so one may see how they were changed by the battle.
Even then, it is doubtful we can truly benefit, unless we can spot the coming Bosworths in our own time and apply the lessons gleaned from history to our own day. The poet Coleridge wrote, ‘If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But … the light that experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us’.
The story I am going to relate concerns a seemingly obscure occurrence in church history. But there are very important lessons for the church today in the goings-on at Salters’ Hall, London, nearly 300 years ago. In this first article, we will set the scene.
The restoration of Charles II to the throne following the death of Cromwell was swiftly followed by the ejection of 2,000 Puritan ministers from the Church of England, by the Act of Uniformity of 1662.
The Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade ejected ministers from living within five miles of their erstwhile parishes. These were the Nonconformists, so called because they refused to conform to the new Prayer Book published that year. While this led to these ministers starting up Dissenting churches, it also led to a marked downturn in the doctrine and practice of the Anglican Church.
Moreover, the growing elegance and profligacy of the royal court and the dissolute lives of large sections of the nobility led to a steep decline in morality. At the same time, the scientific discoveries of Newton, Boyle and others led many to view the universe as wholly mechanistic. Deism became their creed. God, they considered, may have kick-started the world into being, but after that the laws of science governed the cosmos. God was remote and disinterested in his creation.
Deistical philosophers like Anthony Collins sought to exclude from Christianity any idea of the supernatural, teaching that Christ was not a literal Messiah, but merely a product of the early church’s imagination.
At the same time, commerce and speculation were becoming increasingly lucrative to many. The son of the firebrand Puritan preacher, Praisegod Barebones, became Nicholas Barbon, the property developer of London, after the Great Fire. Everywhere there seemed to be financial opportunities, and religion took a back seat for those intent on making riches in ‘the here and now’.
The decline in Christianity also led to a sharp decline in morality among the people. In 1689, imported liquor was banned and the English began enthusiastically to brew their own strong drink, chiefly gin.
By the 1720s, every sixth house in London was a gin shop, and so greatly did this affect the health of the people that the population went into decline for a period. The famous series of prints by William Hogarth, Gin lane, The harlot’s progress and The rake’s progress date from this time and illustrate remarkably the degradation into which the nation had fallen.
As morality declined, so crime increased. In desperation, the authorities imposed ever harsher penalties, until as many as 160 crimes were punishable by death. But all in vain, for crime increased inexorably. At the same time, there was a craze for gambling and increased obscenity on the stage and in literature. Sexually transmitted diseases became endemic. It was joked in high society that Parliament was preparing a bill to have the ‘not’ taken out of the Commandments and inserted into the Creed.
The Dissenting churches at this time belonged to four groups, the ‘General’ or Arminian Baptists, the ‘Particular’ or Calvinistic Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians.
The first of these was already in decline, having lost many of its members to the Quakers. The Particular Baptists and Congregationalists weathered the persecutions as best they could.
Their leaders, like William Kiffin and John Bunyan, were occasionally imprisoned, but, being single congregations and not requiring a hierarchical authority, they survived and even quietly grew during the reigns of Charles II and James II. Men like Kiffin and Bunyan for the Baptists, and John Owen for the Congregationalists, held to a firm Calvinism and a doctrine of a ‘gathered church’.
The Presbyterians were much the largest grouping, having comprised around 1,800 of the 2,000 ministers ejected in 1662. They had hoped until 1660 to become Britain’s ‘established church’, but found life much more difficult after the Restoration. They were unable to maintain their system of sessions, presbyteries, synods and assemblies. They found themselves in ‘gathered churches’ despite their doctrine of comprehensiveness.
Their chief spokesman at this time, Richard Baxter, in his search for a comprehensive church settlement, adopted a modified form of Calvinism, which earned him the rebuke of John Owen and others. Almost before the ink was dry on the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Baxter had declared that agreement on the Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments were all that was necessary for church unity. Thus, within a few years of its composition, the WCF was being rejected by many Presbyterians.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which James II was replaced as monarch by his daughter, Mary and her husband, William, brought some freedom to the dissenting churches. The Toleration Act of 1689 permitted orthodox dissenters who subscribed to the doctrinal articles of the Church of England to worship unhindered within their registered meeting houses, though no public worship was permitted outside them.
The Presbyterians, who had sought comprehensiveness, had to adjust to life as Dissenters. In 1691, a loose association — the ‘Happy Union’ — between Congregationalists and Presbyterians was formed in London, but it was soon found that the Congregationalists held to a firmer form of Calvinism than their Presbyterian colleagues, who were still much influenced by Baxter and his friend and successor, Daniel Williams.
A nine-year pamphlet war broke out and caused much strain between the two parties of the ‘Happy Union’. The result was that the Presbyterians became entrenched in their ‘moderate’ Calvinism, which the Independents attacked as Arminianism or even Socinianism.
In the meantime, the downgrade in doctrine continued elsewhere. Even the more orthodox ministers of the established church, instead of calling in apostolic tones for repentance, reduced the gospel to a mere reminding of man of his moral duty.
Archbishop John Tillotson (1630-1698), in a sermon entitled ‘The wisdom of being religious’, wrote, ‘For to know our duty, is to know what it is to be God in goodness and pity, and patience, and clemency, in pardoning injuries, and passing by provocations; in justice and righteousness, in truth and faithfulness, and in hatred and detestation of the contrary of these.
‘In a word, it is to know what is the good and acceptable will of God, what it is that he loves and delights in, and is pleased withal, and would have us do in order to our perfection and our happiness’.
The problem with such sermonising, of course, is that it takes no account of the Fall or natural depravity of man. Left to himself, man has neither the power nor inclination to obey his ‘duty’. Such exhortations, therefore, fell still-born from the pulpit. Tillotson confused law and gospel. He had lost sight of justification by faith, the only hope of fallen men and women.
When the fallen state of man and his inability to keep God’s law is denied, then the need for a Saviour is inevitably downgraded. Who needs to be saved when you can do it all yourself? So it is not surprising that the deity of Christ was also under attack.
Again, the first salvoes were fired by ‘free-thinking’ ministers of the Church of England but, sad to say, the Dissenting churches were not far behind. One cause of the problem was a man named William Whiston (1667-1752), who succeeded Sir Isaac Newton to the Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University.
In those days, as now, people imagined that a clever scientist might have helpful things to say about religion. Then, as now, they were wrong. Whiston wrote a book called Primitive Christianity revived, in which he wrested, added to and subtracted from the Scriptures shamelessly to fit his scheme of theology. Chief among his heresies was an Arian interpretation of the Godhead, with the Lord Jesus Christ as a created being.
Whiston’s book brought him considerable notoriety, and, finding himself censured by the Church of England, he removed himself to Paul’s Alley Baptist Church in London’s Barbican. That church’s previous minister, John Gale, had denied the doctrine of original sin, and its present incumbent was Dr James Foster, who was widely regarded as a deist.
It should be said that the Paul’s Alley church was then ‘General’ or Arminian Baptist, rather than ‘Particular’ or Calvinistic. It had been Calvinistic, but in 1695, the remnant of the Turner Hall congregation, a General Baptist group, joined it, and the church progressively took on an Arminian and then an Arian posture.
Readers may well wonder how a man like Whiston was able to attach himself to a Baptist church. Did he not have to be baptised on his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and give some account of his faith in Christ?
Apparently not. It seems Gale and Foster were only too pleased to welcome a fellow free-thinker into their ranks. If it be asked how those gentlemen came to be ministers in a dissenting church, the reason will be forthcoming in the next article.
Stephen Owen is a deacon at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth, and author of the Martin Marprelate blog (www.marprelate.wordpress.com).