Background of the American Revolution
No one can understand the foundations of the American nation without understanding the Protestant Reformation—in particular the Dissenters (or Puritans) who brought the ideals of religious toleration and individual accountability with them to America. Daniel Neal, their chronicler, documented their history in a four volume series during the 1730s. The prefaces to each volume contain a brief synopsis of the volume.
When I am convinced of any mistakes or unfair representations, I shall not be ashamed to retract them before the world, but facts are stubborn things, and will not bend to the humours and inclinations of artful and angry men: if these have been disguised or misreported, let them be set right in a decent manner, without the mean surmises of plots and confederacies; and whoever does it shall have mine as well as the thanks of the public.
to VOL. II;
The History of the Puritans.
THE favourable acceptance of the first volume of this work has encouraged me to publish a second, which carries the history forward to the beginning of the civil war, when the two Houses of Parliament wrested the spiritual sword out of the hands of the king and bishops, and assumed the supremacy to themselves.
There had been a cessation of controversy for some time before the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Puritans being in hopes, upon the accession of a king that had been educated in their own principles, to obtain an easy redress of their grievances; and certainly no prince ever had so much in his power to compromise the differences of the Church as King James I. at the conference of Hampton Court; but, being an indolent and vainglorious monarch, he became a willing captive to the bishops, who flattered his vanity, and put that maxim into his head, “No bishop, no king.” The creatures of the court, in lieu of the vast sums of money they received out of the exchequer, gave him the flattering title of an absolute sovereign, and, to supply his extravagances, broke through the Constitution, and laid the foundation of all the calamities of his son’s reign, while himself, sunk into luxury and ease, became the contempt of all the powers of Europe. If King James had any principles of religion besides what he called kingcraft or dissimulation, he changed them with the climate, for from a rigid Calvinist he became a favourer of Arminianism in the latter part of his reign, from a Protestant of the purest kirk upon earth, a doctrinal papist; and from a disgusted Puritan, the most implacable enemy of that people, putting all the springs of the prerogative in motion to drive them out of both kingdoms.
But, instead of accomplishing his designs, the number of Puritans increased prodigiously in his reign, which was owing to one or other of these causes.
First. To the standing firm by the Constitution and laws of their country, which brought over to them all those gentlemen in the House of Commons, and in the several counties of England, who found it necessary, for the preservation of their properties, to oppose the court, and to insist upon being governed according to law, these were called State Puritans.
Secondly. To their steady adherence to the doctrines of Calvin and the Synod of Dort, in the points of predestination and grace, against the modern interpretations of Arminius and his followers. The court divines fell in with the latter, and were thought not only to deviate from the principles of the first Reformers, but to attempt a coalition with the Church of Rome; while most of the country clergy, being stiff in their old opinions (though otherwise well enough affected to the discipline and ceremonies of the Church), were, in a manner, shut out from all preferment, and branded with the name of Doctrinal Puritans.
Thirdly. To their pious and severe manner of life, which was at this time very extraordinary. If a man kept the Sabbath and frequented sermons; if he maintained family religion, and would neither swear, nor be drunk, nor comply with the fashionable vices of the times, he was called a Puritan; this, by degrees, procured them the compassion of the sober part of the nation, who began to think it very hard that a number of sober, industrious, and conscientious people should be harassed out of the land for scrupling to comply with a few indifferent ceremonies, which had no relation to the favour of God or the practice of virtue.
Fourthly. It has been thought by some that their increase was owing” to the mild and gentle government of Archbishop Abbot. While Bancroft lived, the Puritans were used with the utmost rigour; but Abbot, having a greater concern for the doctrines of the Church than for its ceremonies, relaxed the penal laws, and connived at their proselyting the people to Calvinism. Arminianism was at this time both a Church and State faction; the divines of this persuasion, apprehending their sentiments not very consistent with the received sense of the Thirty-nine Articles, and being afraid of the censures of a parliament or a convocation, took shelter under the prerogative, and went into all the slavish measures of the court to gain the royal favour, and to secure to their friends the chief preferments in the Church. They persuaded his majesty to stifle the predestinarian controversy, both in the pulpit and press, and would no doubt, in a few years, have got the balance of numbers on their side, if, by grasping at too much, they had not precipitated both Church and State into confusion. It was no advantage to those divines that they were linked with the Roman Catholics, for these being sensible they could not be protected by law, cried up the prerogative, and joined the forces with the court divines, to support the dispensing power; they declared for the unlimited authority of the sovereign on the one hand, and the absolute obedience of the subject on the other; so that, though there is no real connexion between Arminianism and popery, the two parties were unhappily combined at this time to destroy the Puritans, and to subvert the Constitution and laws of their country.
But if Abbot was too remiss, his successor, Laud, was as much too furious, for in the first year of his government he introduced as many changes as a wise and prudent statesman would have attempted in seven, he prevailed with his majesty to set up the English service at Edinburgh, and laid the foundation of the Scotch Liturgy; he obtained the revival of the Book of Sports; he turned the communion-tables into altars; he sent out injunctions which broke up the French and Dutch churches; and procured the repeal of the Irish Articles, and those of England to be received in their place. Such was his rigorous persecution of the Puritans, that he would neither suffer them to live peaceably in the land, nor remove quietly out of it! His grace was also the chief mover in. all those unbounded acts of power which were subversive of the rights and liberties of the people, and while he had the reins in his hands, drove so near the precipices of popery and tyranny, that the hearts of the most resolved Protestants turned against him, and almost all England became Puritan.
I am sensible that no part of modern history has been examined with so much critical exactness as that part of the reign of King Charles I. which relates to the rise and progress of the civil war; here the writers on both sides have blown up their passions into a flame, and, instead of history, have given us little else but panegyric or satire. I have endeavoured to avoid extremes, and have represented things as they appeared to me, with modesty, and without any personal reflections. The character I have given of the religious principles of the Long Parliament was designedly taken out of the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Grand Rebellion, that it might be without exception: and I am of opinion that the want of due acquaintance with the principles of the two houses with regard to Church discipline has misled our best historians, who have represented some of them as zealous prelatists, and others as cunning Presbyterians, Independents, sectaries, &c., whereas, in truth, they had these matters very little at heart. The king was hampered with notions of the Divine right of diocesan episcopacy, but the two houses (excepting the bishops) were, almost to a man, of the principles of Erastus, who maintained that Christ and his apostles had prescribed no particular form of discipline for his Church in after ages, but had left the keys in the hands of the civil magistrate, who had the sole power of punishing transgressors, and of appointing such particular forms of Church government from time to time as were most subservient to the peace and welfare of the commonwealth. Indeed, these were the sentiments of our Church-reformers from Archbishop Cranmer down to Bancroft. And though the Puritans, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, wrote with great eagerness for the Divine right of their Book of Discipline, their posterity in the next reigns were more cool upon that head, declaring their satisfaction, if the present episcopacy might be reduced to a more primitive standard. This was the substance of the ministers’ petition in the year 1641, signed with seven hundred hands. And even those who were for root and branch were willing to submit to a parliamentary reformation, till the Scots revived the notion of Divine right in the assembly of divines. However, it is certain the two houses had no attachment to Presbytery or Independency, but would have compromised matters with the king upon the episcopal scheme as long as his majesty was in the field, but when victory had declared on their side, they complied in some measure with their Northern friends, who had assisted them in the war, but would never part with the power of the keys out of their own hands. If the reader will keep this in mind, he will easily account for the several revolutions of Church government in these unsettled times.
It is not to be expected that the most disinterested writer of these affairs should escape the censures of different parties; I thought I had already sufficently expressed my intentions in publishing the History of the Puritans, but because it has been insinuated in a late pamphlet that it looked like a plot against the ecclesiastical constitution, I think it proper to assure the world once for all, that what I have written is with no ill spirit or design against the peace of the Church or nation; that I have no private or party views; no patron, no associates; nor other prospects of reward than the pleasure of setting the English Reformation in a true light, and of beating down some of the fences and enclosures of conscience. Nor can there be any inconvenience in remembering the mistakes of our ancestors, when all the parties concerned are gone off the stage, and their families reconciled by intermarriages; but it may be of some use and benefit to mankind, by enabling them to avoid those rocks on which their forefathers have split. When I am convinced of any mistakes or unfair representations, I shall not be ashamed to retract them before the world, but FACTS are stubborn things, and will not bend to the humours and inclinations of artful and angry men: if these have been disguised or misreported, let them be set right in a decent manner, without the mean surmises of plots and confederacies; and whoever does it shall have mine as well as the thanks of the public.
I have no controversy with the present Church of England, which has abandoned, in a great measure, the persecuting principles of former times; for though I am not unacquainted with the nature and defects of religious establishments, yet neither my principles nor inclinations will allow me to give them the least disturbance, any farther than they impose upon conscience, or intrench upon the rights of civil society. If the Presbyterians or Independents have been guilty of such practices in their turns, I shall freely bear my testimony against them, and think I may do it with a GOOD GRACE, since I have always declared against restraints upon conscience among all parties of Christians; but if men will vindicate the justice and equity of oaths ex officio, and of exorbitant fines, imprisonment, and banishment for things in their own nature indifferent; if they will call a relation of the illegal severities of council-tables, star chambers, and high commissions a satire against the present establishment, they must use their liberty, as I shall mine, in appearing against ecclesiastical oppression, from what quarter soever it comes.
I have freely censured the mistakes of the Puritans in Queen Elizabeth’s reign; nor will I be their advocate any longer than they have Scripture, reason, and some degree of good manners on their side. If it shall at any time appear that the body of them lived in contempt of all lawful authority, or bid defiance to the laws of their country, except in such cases wherein their consciences told them it was their duty to obey God rather than man; if they were guilty of rebellion, sedition, or of abandoning the queen and the Protestant religion when it was in danger, let them bear their own reproach; but as yet I must be of opinion that they were the best friends of the Constitution and liberties of their country; that they were neither unquiet nor restless, unless against tyranny in the state and oppression upon the conscience; that they made use of no other weapons, during a course of fourscore years, but prayers to God and petitions to the Legislature for redress of their grievances, it being an article of their belief that absolute submission was due to the supreme magistrate in all things lawful, as will sufficiently appear by their protestations in the beginning of the reign of King James I. I have admitted that the Puritans might be too stiff and rigid in their behaviour; that they were unacquainted with the rights of conscience; and that their language to their superiors, the bishops, was not always decent and mannerly: oppression maketh wise men mad. But surely the depriving, imprisoning, and putting men to death for these things will not be vindicated in our times.
In the preface to the first volume of this history, I mentioned with pleasure the growing sentiments of religious liberty in the Church of England, but complained, of the burden of subscriptions upon the clergy, and of the corporation and test acts as prejudicial to the cause of religion and virtue among the laity; for which reasons the Protestant Dissenters throughout England intended to petition for a repeal or amendment of these acts the ensuing session of Parliament, if they had met with any encouragement from their superiors, or had the least prospect of success. The sacramental test is, no doubt, a distinguishing mark of reproach which they have not deserved; and, I humbly conceive, no very great security to the Church of England, unless it can be supposed that one single act of occasional conformity can take off the edge of all their imagined aversion to the hierarchy, who worship all the rest of the year among Nonconformists. Nor can the repeal of these acts be of any considerable advantage to the body of Dissenters, because not one in five hundred can expect to reap any private benefit by it to himself or family; their zeal, therefore, in this cause must arise principally from a regard to the liberties of their country, and a desire of rescuing one of the most sacred rights of Christianity from the profanation to which it is exposed.
But it seems this will not be believed till the Dissenters propose some other pledge and security by which the end and intent of the sacramental test may be equally attained; for (says a late writer) the Legislature never intended them any share of trust or power in the government; and he hopes never will, till they see better reasons for it than hath hitherto appeared. Must the Dissenters, then, furnish the Church with a law to exclude themselves from serving their king and country? Let the disagreeable work be undertaken by men that are better skilled in such unequal severities. I will not examine into the intent of the Legislature in this place; but if Protestant Nonconformists are to have no share of trust or power in the government, why are they chosen into such offices, and subject to fines and penalties for declining them? Is it for not serving?—this, it seems, is what the Legislature never intended. Is it, then, for not qualifying?—surely this is a penalty upon conscience. I would ask the warmest advocate for the sacramental test whether the appointing Protestant Dissenters for sheriffs of counties, and obliging them to qualify against their consciences under the penalties of a premunire, without the liberty of serving by a deputy or of commuting by a fine, is consistent with so full a toleration and exemption from penal laws as this writer says they enjoy? It is true, a good government may take no advantage of this power, but in a bad one men must qualify, or their liberties and estates lie at the king’s mercy; it seems, therefore, but reasonable (whatever the intent of the Legislature may be), that Protestant Dissenters should be admitted to serve their country with a good conscience in offices of trust as well as of burden, or be exempted from all pains and penalties for not doing it.
It is now pretty generally agreed, that receiving the holy sacrament merely as a qualification for a place of civil profit or trust is contrary to the ends of its institution, and a snare to the consciences of men; for though the law is open, and “they who obtain offices in the state know beforehand the conditions of keeping them,” yet when the bread of a numerous family depends upon a qualification which a man cannot be satisfied to comply with, it is certainly a snare; and though I agree with our author, that “if the minds of such persons are wicked, the law does not make them so,” yet I am afraid it hardens them, and makes them a great deal worse. How many thousand come to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with reluctance! and, perhaps, eat and drink judgment to themselves, the guilt of which must be chargeable either upon the imposers or receivers, or upon both. Methinks, therefore, charity to the souls of men, as well as a concern for the purity of our holy religion, should engage all serious Christians to endeavour the removal of this grievance; and since we are told that the appearing of the Dissenters at this time is unseasonable, and will be ineffectual, I would humbly move our right reverend fathers the bishops not to think it below their high stations and dignities to consider of some expedient to roll away this reproach from the Church and nation, and agree upon some security for the former (if needful) of a civil nature, that may leave room (as King William expresses it in his speech to his first Parliament) for the admission of all Protestants that are able and willing to serve their country. The honour of Christ and the cause of public virtue seem to require it; and forasmuch as the influence of these acts affects great numbers of the laity in a very tender part, I should think it no dishonour for the several corporations in England, as well as for the officers of the army, navy, customs, and excise, who are more peculiarly concerned, to join their interests in petitioning the Legislature for such relief. And I flatter myself that the wise and temperate behaviour of the Protestant Dissenters in their late general assembly in London, with the dutiful regard that they have always shown to the peace and welfare of his majesty’s person, family, and government, will not fail to recommend them to the royal protection and favour; and that his most excellent majesty, in imitation of his glorious predecessor, King William III., will, in a proper time, recommend it to his Parliament to strengthen his administration, by taking off those restraints which at present disable his Protestant Dissenting subjects from showing their zeal in the service of their king and country.
London, March 6th, 1732-2.
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Click image to read Volume II at Archive.org.