The late 17th century saw the last period of organized persecution of Christians in England and produced some of the finest pieces of Christian literature in the English language. The experiences of evangelical believers at that time have a number of things to teach us, as we may soon be facing similar challenges.
Christians living through the Civil War of the 1640s and its aftermath witnessed events which, to many at the time, seemed apocalyptic. The conflict between King Charles I and Parliament had been largely over religious issues and ended with the triumph of ‘godliness’ over the forces of ‘popery and idolatry’.
During the 1650s, many Christians were fascinated by ‘end-time’ prophecy and some even saw the establishment of Cromwell’s protectorate as ushering in the Kingdom of God at the end of the age.
Freedom of worship
Whatever Cromwell’s faults (and he had many!) there seems little doubt that the man himself was genuinely born-again and sought to establish a society where Christ could be worshipped freely.
After the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, however, the tide turned rapidly against evangelical believers in ways they could not have foreseen just a few years earlier.
The new king was not himself antagonistic towards Evangelicals, but the Parliament which welcomed him back most certainly was. It lost no time in passing laws to restrict the freedom of speech, worship and association of any who did not uphold the established Anglican Church and its practices.
It was widely believed by the Restoration authorities that too much freedom of religion had been largely responsible for the Civil War and that new restrictive laws were therefore justified to prevent society again being destabilized.
Strangers on the earth
Since the dawn of history true believers have always been persecuted by an established religion based on man’s works: ‘But as then, he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now’ (Galatians 4:29).
The Puritans of the seventeenth century knew only too well that the Lord’s people would never be ‘respectable’ members of society — that on the contrary they would always be aliens and strangers on this earth.
In 1664, after just four years of Restoration government, Richard Baxter wrote: ‘I am further than ever … from expecting great matters of … prosperity to the church on Earth, or that the Saints should dream of a Kingdom of this world, or flatter themselves with hopes of a golden age, or reigning over the ungodly … on the contrary I am more apprehensive that sufferings must be the churches most ordinary lot, and Christians must be self-denying cross bearers’.
Those who believe in ‘Dominion’ and ‘Kingdom Now’ theology would do well to listen to this admonition. Believers in mid-seventeenth century England, who hoped for a country where the Kingdom of God would be established, were cruelly disillusioned by the events of the 1660s.
Years in prison
Instead, godly men could expect to find their mail interfered with and to appear before the courts for unauthorised preaching and writing — activities which had generally been legal just a few years before. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s progress, spent twelve years in prison and Richard Baxter two years. Many others suffered similarly.
Today we are seeing a growing ecumenical movement, which is gaining respectability at the expense of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The New Age movement seeks the unity of almost all ‘spirituality’ except biblical Christianity.
If present trends continue, Christians in Britain are going to find themselves under pressure in ways they have not experienced since the days of the Puritans.
A foretaste of what might lie ahead was seen in 2001 in Bournemouth, when 69-year-old evangelical Christian Harry Hammond was arrested and successfully prosecuted under the Public Order Act 1986 for publicly displaying a placard which offended the gay community.
To interpret the law in this way represents a major shift in the way the authorities view the expression of evangelical and traditional morality. A couple of decades ago, such an event happening in England would have been unthinkable.
Laws currently being formulated against inciting ‘religious hatred’ are certain to be used against Christians who say that Jesus is the only way to God — as is legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
If believers again find themselves the target of serious and organised persecution in this country, then the writings of men like John Bunyan will take on a new significance, as we find ourselves persecuted and stigmatised, just as they were.
The society we live in today may be radically different from theirs, but many of the underlying issues are similar. Free speech on matters of religion is again threatened, the law is starting to be used against Evangelicals, and the prevailing consensus is antagonistic to the message of the cross.
Those of us who are not led astray by erroneous prophecies of an all-conquering revival must not see this as an opportunity to say ‘I told you so’ — or to feel superior to other believers. For if persecution comes, all true Christians will go through the fire together.
As the light of the former Christian civilisation grows even more dim, we need to remember that in heaven there are already many saints of God from earlier periods of English history whose testimonies can encourage us.
Like Christianin Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress, we need to become loosely attached to this world and its deceptive security, and prepare for what may be difficult days ahead.
‘For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).