Oliver Cromwell – Toleration in an Intolerant Age

Kenneth Dix
01 September, 1999 7 min read

‘More often than not, in Puritan England, toleration was a dirty word. It stood not for an edifying principle but an impious policy’. So wrote Blair Worden, then of St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, in an essay on Cromwellian toleration written in 1984.1

To grant ‘a toleration’ was to make ‘an expedient concession to wickedness’. By both the extremists and the less extreme toleration was denounced as an artifice of Satan, giving men the right to disseminate heresy, to the delusion of their converts and the destruction of their own souls.

Given the proliferation of sects in the early 1640s, there was also the not unreasonable fear that toleration would bring chaos and anarchy. It was of course an intolerant age. The Elizabethan settlement imposed a state religion, based on the doctrines and liturgical forms laid down in the Book of Common Prayer. As those who dissented discovered, there was no room for open dissent.

Orders disregarded

In the 1630s Archbishop William Laud, who was no friend of the Puritans, instigated a regime demanding total conformity both to the Prayer Book, and to his own Romanising innovations. After his downfall in 1640, and the outbreak of the Civil War two years later, a largely Presbyterian Parliament called into being the Westminster Assembly, with the task of presenting proposals for a national religious settlement.

In 1645, the Assembly produced a Directory of Public Worship as a replacement for the Book of Common Prayer. Parliament ordered all parishes to purchase copies of the new book, and destroy copies of the Prayer Book. The order was widely disregarded.

It can be fairly argued that those who sought to impose an untried and untested formula for worship, and completely remove a book for which there was widespread affection, should have known better. The Puritans were not always at their wisest and best in matters of church order and government. For all its undoubted excellencies, the Assembly’s Confession of Faith, with its Presbyterian emphasis, was conformist rather than tolerant. It gave no room for differences of opinion, and called for those who published or maintained opinions contrary to ‘the known principles of Christianity’ to be proceeded against by both church and state.

This confession was proposed to Parliament in 1647, but was never adopted, for by then the army (strongly Independent and Baptist) had revolted. In The Heads of the Proposals they urged the repeal of all acts ‘imposing any penalty for not coming to church, or for meetings elsewhere for prayer or other religious duties, exercises or ordinances’. These proposals, in which Cromwell was certainly involved, were generations ahead of their time. Both King and Parliament rejected them.

Cromwell and tolerance

From Elizabethan times, there had always been those who called for a greater measure of tolerance, and it is certain that Oliver Cromwell had contact with some of these more liberally minded voices.

Battle of Naseby SOURCE Wikipedia

As early as 1641, soon after his election to the so-called Long Parliament as one of the two MPs for Cambridge, he was wanting to know why the Scots were so intolerant in their demands for Presbyterianism.

In 1644 he suggested that Parliament explore ‘how far tender consciences, who cannot in all things submit to the common rule which shall be established, may be borne with according to the Word, and as may stand with the public peace, that so the proceedings of the assembly may not be so much retarded’

Cromwell recognised that it was a quarrelsome age, ‘full of factions’. But the cure he believed was not ‘to hurt men in their names, persons or estates’. After the decisive battle of Naseby, in 1645, he wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons: ‘Sir, this is none other but the hand of God; and to Him alone belongs the glory … Honest men served you faithfully in this action. Sir, they are trusty; I beseech you in the name of God, not to discourage them … He that ventures his life for the liberty of his country, I wish he trust God for the liberty of his conscience, and you for the liberty he fights for’.

Liberty of conscience

As a virtually unknown member of Parliament, and then as a soldier, Cromwell had a passion for liberty of conscience, believing it to be every man’s natural right. This passion did not desert him when he became the Lord Protector. ‘I will tell you the truth’, he told Parliament in 1656, ‘that that which hath been our practice … hath been to let this nation see that whatever pretensions be to religion, if quiet, peaceable, [they may enjoy] conscience and liberty to themselves, [so long as they do] not make religion a pretence for arms and blood. Truly we have suffered them, and that cheerfully … to enjoy their own liberties … be they those under Baptism, be they those of the Independent judgement simply, and of the Presbyterian judgement, in the name of God, encourage them’.

The officers and men of the New Model Army believed that a war had been fought in the interests of liberty. Oliver Cromwell was not prepared to see that liberty snatched away. He declared: ‘All the money of this nation would not have tempted men to fight upon such an account as they have engaged, if they had not had hopes of liberty, better than they had from Episcopacy, or than would have been afforded them from a Scottish Presbytery, or an English either, if it had made such steps or been as sharp and rigid as it threatened when it was first set’.

The extent and limits of tolerance

After the storming of Bristol in September 1645, and in another letter to the Speaker of the Commons, Cromwell wrote: ‘Presbyterians, Independents, all had here the same spirit of faith and prayer … they agree here, know no names of difference: pity it is it should be otherwise anywhere’.

In the same spirit, he rebuked Parliament in 1654 for not doing more to propose an acceptable settlement embracing godly men of different judgements in lesser matters, but who were, ‘looking at salvation only by faith in the blood of Christ’.

Clearly, Cromwell was distressed at the lack of progress in formulating a religious settlement. He was also angered by those who claimed liberty for themselves, but would not allow it to others, and who would be at each other’s throats if they met in the street. They were claiming Christian credentials, but needed his presence as ‘the constable of the parish’ to keep the peace.

But there were limits to the degree of toleration permitted. Within any agreed settlement there could be no place for anti-trinitarians or unitarians, because of their denial of the deity of Christ. The Quakers were also excluded; their practice of disturbing meetings on the pretext of Spirit-given impulse was unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, the Lord Protector was against the inclusion of Anglicans or Roman Catholics, not because of their doctrines, but for political reasons. If Anglicanism was allowed to revive, there was every likelihood that the Royalist cause would revive with it. And in the seventeenth century the papacy was seen as a continuing threat to peace and religious freedom.

However, in practice, both Catholics and Anglicans enjoyed some measure of freedom. Cromwell could say, ‘I tell you there was never such Liberty of Conscience, no never such liberty since the days of Antichrist [i.e. since the beginning of the reformation] as is now — for may not men preach and pray what they will? And have not men their liberty of all opinions?’

A godly nation

Cromwell’s heart’s desire was to see a godly nation. In a celebrated speech to the Nominated Assembly (the so-called ‘Barebones Parliament’) on a hot July day in 1653, he expressed his belief that the providential deliverances and victories of the past ten years, and the calling of this company of godly men to ‘supreme authority’, were evidences of God fulfilling his promises in Psalm 68. He had ‘led Israel through the Red Sea’, so now he was ‘gathering a people out of deep waters’.

Cromwell longed to see a religious settlement where there would be a ‘union and right understanding’ between all the godly, through whom the gospel might be propagated to the blessing of the whole nation. The problem was to find a formula embracing all true believers, but excluding those with heretical notions.

In 1652 the leading Puritan theologian John Owen produced fourteen fundamentals of the Christian religion; these were widely debated, but were never agreed to.

Richard Baxter proposed the Apostles’ creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer as a basis. The Instrument of Government (1653), installing Cromwell as the Lord Protector, affirmed, ‘That the Christian religion, as contained in the Scriptures, be held forth and recommended as the public profession of these nations’. It gave liberty to all ‘who profess faith in God by Jesus Christ’.

But in denying this liberty ‘to Popery or Prelacy’ it was badly flawed, since there were certainly many godly people among the Anglicans. In the Humble Petition and Advice, presented to Cromwell in 1657, it was proposed that a Confession of Faith be drawn up, to be agreed by Cromwell and Parliament.

Nothing came of this proposition, nor could it have received the endorsement of the increasing number of Independents and Baptists. They were earnestly contending for the belief that, while the state has a duty to protect the godly (and all others) from evil, it has no right to meddle in church matters.

By early 1658 Cromwell’s health was in serious decline, and he died on 3 September. He had been, in his own words, ‘a mean instrument’ to do the Lord’s people ‘some good’, but from his hopes and aspirations for a godly nation, there was only disappointment and sadness.

Religious diversity

In Old Testament times David, the man of war, had been followed by Solomon, the man of peace. In the Britain of the 1650s there was no Solomon and, for all Cromwell’s worth as a true man of God, this was a role he was unable to fulfil. His triumphs in war, and his part in regicide, had earned him too many enemies.

With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, and the insistence on conformity to the established church, the clock was put in reverse. But liberty of conscience was now too much a part of the nation’s life-blood for uniformity ever to succeed. In 1688 came the Act of Toleration, and with it the acceptance of religious diversity.

Cromwell had longed for spiritual unity between all true believers. He had lived and fought for his passionate belief in liberty of conscience. Paradoxically, it was this passion which paved the way for diversity, and for a denominationalism, characterised at times by such deep feelings of distrust and dissension, that often, down the years, real parish constables have had to keep the peace between religious factions!

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