Part V - The Reformation: Lesson No. 35 - English Sects

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I. The Puritans

The seventeenth Century was a time of great religious and political upheaval in England. This turmoil had its roots in the uncompleted religious revolution begun by Henry VIII when he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church to establish the Church of England. Henry wanted the Church of England to be free of organizational ties to the Catholic Church but he himself remained a Catholic in much of his religious sentiment. Consequently, the Church of England was neither fully Protestant nor fully Catholic. This left England in a rather unsettled religious condition. This condition was exacerbated by the religious ambivalence and shifting attachments of succeeding monarchs.

Queen Elizabeth I, though Protestant, tried to steer a very moderate course. As much of the old Roman order of organization and worship as Protestant sentiment would permit was retained. Naturally, then, there were those who felt that Elizabeth was not sufficiently aggressive in pressing the Protestant cause. These wanted to purify the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism. Therefore, they were known as "Puritans." Among the changes that they desired to make was the procurement of genuine Protestant preachers in every parish, rejection of clerical vestments (Matt. 23:5 , 8), kneeling at the reception of the Lord's Supper, the wedding ring (because it was thought to be indicative of matrimony as a sacrament), crossing, and sabbath-like observance of Sunday with a commensurate suspension of amusements such as games and dances (Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16,17; Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1,2). English officialdom was not prepared for such far-reaching changes and thus proscribed religious practices contrary to them and punished those who did not submit by imprisonment or deprivation of ecclesiastical positions.

Another important focus of controversy between the Puritans and Anglicans (Church of England) was the form of government the church should have. The Church of England was ruled by a form of government known as episcopacy. This theory of church government asserts that the church should be ruled by bishops who oversee a whole diocese. This theory further maintains that bishops are direct successors of the original apostles and thus wield the powers of the apostles (Acts 1:22; I Cor. 15:8). Under the bishops are presbyters (or priests) of local congregations, and deacons. Thus, the episcopal form of church government is hierarchical and monarchical in nature.

Some Puritans, on the other hand, believed that Presbyterianism was the only proper form of church government. Presbyterianism is also hierarchical in nature but differs from episcopacy in some important respects. Firstly, local church leaders are appointed by the congregation they oversee and not by superior officers outside the congregation (although they may be ordained or approved by them). This eliminates the idea of apostolic succession and powers for church leaders. Secondly, leadership and decisions were conciliar in nature in the Presbyterian form of church government, thus eliminating the tendency toward the supremacy of the episcopate.

Most Puritans were satisfied to introduce as much of their system as the prevailing situation would permit and wait for civil government to put the rest in place. However, English monarchs preferred episcopacy and the old order in worship. Some Puritans thus despaired of attaining what they felt was a Scriptural system by waiting on the government to implement the necessary changes and took the more radical approach of separating themselves from the Church of England to form their own congregations. They were known as "Separatists," and some of them advocated total congregational independence. Disliked by Anglicans and Puritans, they were persecuted so severely that some had to seek refuge in the Netherlands. Puritans petitioned James I, the successor of Elizabeth, for the changes they sought, but he only granted them a new translation the "Authorized" or "King James Version" of 1611.

II. The Baptists and Congregationalists

Among the Separatists who sought refuge in the Netherlands was a congregational leader by the name of John Smyth. From a study of the Scriptures he came to the conclusion that church membership was given by baptism on the basis of repentance and faith. In 1608 or 1609 he therefore "baptized" himself and others by pouring, thus forming the first Baptist Church. Smyth also adopted the view that Christ died for all. He and those who shared his belief were known as "General Baptists." Those who believed Christ died only for the elect were known as "Particular Baptists." They adopted immersion as the proper mode of baptism (Rom. 6:4). Those among the Separatists who advocated congregational independence and religious freedom but who did not adopt Baptist positions were known as "Independents" or "Congregationalists." The "pilgrims" who crossed the Atlantic in 1620 to establish the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts were Congregationalists.

James I was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who provoked a civil war by his strenuous advocacy of Anglicanism and ill-treatment of the English Parliament. The conflict resulted in a victory for Puritanism, and Charles was eventually beheaded. Following the Protectorate of Cromwell, however, Charles II once again pressed Anglicanism to the point of practically outlawing Puritanism. James II, who succeeded Charles II, went even further by trying to return England to the Roman Catholic fold. This resulted in a revolution which installed William and Mary as joint sovereigns of England. Under their rule toleration was extended to all English sects except Catholics and anti-Trinitarians.

III. The Quakers

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, was founded by an Englishman named George Fox, who believed that the Lord granted every man an Inner Light to guide him to truth. Thus, revelation was not confined to the Scriptures but was given directly to each individual (II Tim. 3:16,17). Fox also rejected a professional ministry, oaths, servility in speech or behavior, military service, slavery, and the sacraments. A consecrated life on the part of Quakers was demanded and formalism in worship was opposed. Quakers were severely persecuted in England and America, some even unto death, but eventually received the benefits of William and Mary's Act of Toleration in 1689. Before that time a prominent, William Penn, received a grant from Charles II in Pennsylvania and established a Quaker colony there.

IV. Exercises

(1) (T or F) The first Baptists did not practice immersion.

(2) (T or F) Direct inspiration, as well as the Scriptures, is needed to know the truth.

(3) Who were the following - Anglicans, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and Congregationalists?

(4) What two views of church government vied for dominance in England, and how were they both unscriptural?

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