Posted by: Democratic Thinker | April 5, 2010

The History of the Puritans—Preface, Vol. III

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.

The body of Protestant Dissenters of the present age have a just abhorrence of the persecuting spirit of their predecessors, and are content that their actions be set in a fair light, as a warning to posterity.

to VOL. III;
The History of the Puritans.


Daniel Neal.

NO period of civil history has undergone a more critical examination than the last seven years of King Charles I., which was a scene of such confusion and inconsistent management between the king and Parliament, that it is very difficult to discover the motives of action on either side. The king seems to have been directed by secret springs from the queen and her council of papists, who were for advancing the prerogative above the laws, and vesting his majesty with such an absolute sovereignty as might rival his brother of France, and enable him to establish the Roman Catholic religion in England, or some how or other blend it with the Protestant. This gave rise to the unparalleled severities of the Star Chamber and High Commission, which, after twelve years’ triumph over the laws and liberties of the subject, brought on a fierce and bloody war, and after the loss of above a hundred thousand lives, ended in the sacrifice of the king himself, and the subversion of the whole Constitution.

Though all men had a veneration for the person of the king, his ministers had rendered themselves justly obnoxious, not only by setting up a new form of government at home, but by extending their jurisdiction to a neighbouring kingdom, under the government of distinct laws, and inclined to a form of church discipline very different from the English: this raised such a storm in the north, as distressed his majesty’s administration, exhausted his treasure, drained all his arbitrary springs of supply, and (after an intermission of twelve years) reduced him to the necessity of returning to the Constitution, and calling a Parliament; but when the public grievances came to be opened, there appeared such a collection of ill-humours, and so general a distrust between the king and his two Houses, as threatened all the mischief and desolation that followed. Each party laid the blame on the other, and agreed in nothing but in throwing off the odium of the civil war from themselves.

The affairs of the Church had a very considerable influence on the welfare of the State: the Episcopal character was grown into contempt, not from any defect of learning in the bishops, but from their close attachment to the prerogative, and their own insatiable thirst of power, which they strained to the utmost in their spiritual courts, by reviving old and obsolete customs, levying large fines on the people for contempt of their canons, and prosecuting good men and zealous Protestants for rites and ceremonies tending to superstition, and not warranted by the laws of the land. The king supported them to the utmost; but was obliged, after some time, to give way, first, to an act for abolishing the High Commission, by a clause in which the power of the bishops’ spiritual courts was in a manner destroyed; and, at last, to an act depriving them of their seats in Parliament. If at this time any methods could have been thought of to restore a mutual confidence between the king and his two Houses, the remaining differences in the Church might easily have been compromised; but the spirits of men were heated, and as the flames of the civil war grew fiercer, and spread wider, the wounds of the Church were enlarged, till the distress of the Parliament’s affairs obliging them to call in the Scots, with their solemn league and covenant, they became incurable.

When the king had lost his cause in the field, he put himself at the head of his divines, and drew his learned pen in defence of his prerogative and the Church of England; but his arguments were no more successful than his sword. I have brought the debates between the king and Mr. Henderson, and between the divines of both sides at the treaties of Uxbridge and Newport upon the head of Episcopacy, into as narrow a compass as possible; my chief design being to trace the proceedings of the Parliament and their assembly at Westminster, which (whether justifiable or not) ought to be placed in open view, though none of the historians of those times have ventured to do it.

The Westminster assembly was the Parliament’s grand council in matters of religion, and made a very considerable figure, both at home and abroad, through the course of the civil war, till they disputed the power of the keys with their superiors, and split upon the rocks of Divine right and covenant-uniformity. The records of this venerable assembly were lost in the fire of London; but I have given a large and just account of their proceedings, from a manuscript of one of their members, and some other papers that have fallen into my hands, and have entered as far into their debates with the Erastians, Independents, and others, as was consistent with the life and spirit of the history.

Whatever views the Scots might have from the beginning of the war, the Parliament would certainly have agreed with the king upon the foot of a limited Episcopacy till the calling the assembly of divines, after which the solemn league and covenant became the standard of all their treaties, and was designed to introduce the Presbyterian government in its full extent, as the established religion of both kingdoms. This tied up the Parliament’s hands from yielding in time to the king’s most reasonable concessions at Newport, and rendered an accommodation impracticable; I have therefore transcribed the covenant at large, with the reasons for and against it. Whether such obligations upon the consciences of men are justifiable from the necessity of affairs, or binding in all events and revolutions of government, I shall not determine; but the imposing them upon others was certainly a very great hardship.

The remarkable trial of Archbishop Laud, in which the antiquity and use of the several innovations complained of by the Puritans are stated and argued, has never been published entire to the world. The archbishop left in his diary a summary of his answer to the charge of the Commons, and Mr. Prynne, in his Canterbury’s Doom, has published the first part of his grace’s trial, relating principally to points of religion; but all is imperfect and immethodical. I have therefore compared both accounts together, and supplied the defects of one with the other; the whole is brought into a narrow compass, and thrown into such a method as will give the reader a clear and distinct view of the equity of the charge, and how far the archbishop deserved the usage he met with.

I have drawn out abstracts of the several ordinances relating to the rise and progress of Presbytery, and traced the proceedings of the committee for plundered and scandalous ministers, as far as was necessary to my general design, without descending too far into particulars, or attempting to justify the whole of their conduct; and though I am of opinion that the number of clergy who suffered purely on the ground of religion was not very considerable, it is certain that many able and learned divines, who were contented to live quietly and mind the duty of their places, had very hard measure from the violence of parties, and deserve the compassionate regards of posterity; some being discharged their livings for refusing the covenant, and others plundered of everything the unruly soldiers could lay their hands upon, for not complying with the change of the times.

In the latter end of the reign of Queen Anne, Dr. Walker, of Exeter, published “An Attempt to recover the Number and Sufferings of the Clergy of the Church of England;” but with notorious partiality, and in language not fit for the lips of a clergyman, a scholar, or a Christian; every page or paragraph, almost, labours with the cry of “rebellion, treason, parricide, faction, stupid ignorance, hypocrisy, cant, and downright knavery and wickedness,” on one side; and “loyalty, learning, primitive sanctity, and the glorious spirit of martyrdom,” on the other. One must conclude, from the doctor, that there was hardly a wise or honest patriot with the Parliament, nor a weak or dishonest gentleman with the king. His preface is one of the most furious invectives against the seven most glorious years of Queen Anne that ever was published; it blackens the memory of the late King William III., to whom he applies that passage of Scripture, “I gave them a king in my anger, and took him away in my wrath;” it arraigns the great Duke of Marlborough, the glory of the English nation, and both houses of Parliament, as in a confederacy to destroy the Church of England, and dethrone the queen. “Rebellion,” says the doctor, “was esteemed the most necessary requisite to qualify any one for being intrusted with the government, and disobedience the principal recommendation for her majesty’s service. Those were thought the most proper persons to guard the throne, who, on the first dislike, were every whit as ready to guard the scaffold; yea, her majesty was in effect told all this to her face, in the greatest assembly of the nation. And to say all that can be said of this matter, all the principles of 1641, and even those of 1648, have been plainly and openly revived.”

Thus has this obscure clergyman dared to affront the great author, under God, of all our present blessings; and to stigmatize the Marlboroughs, the Godolphins, the Stanhopes, the Sunderlands, the Cowpers, and others, the most renowned heroes and statesmen of the age.

It must be confessed, that the tumults and riotous assemblies of the lower sort of people are insufferable in a well-regulated government; and without all question, some of the leading members of the Long Parliament made an ill use of the populace, as tools to support their secret designs: but how easy were it to turn all this part of the doctor’s artillery against himself and his friends; for Prynne, Burton, and Bastwick, in their return from their several prisons, were not attended with such a numerous cavalcade as waited upon the late Dr. Sacheverel, in his triumphant progress through the western counties of England and Wales; nor did they give themselves up to the same excess of licentiousness and rage. If the mob of 1641 insulted the bishops, and awed the Parliament, so did the doctor’s retinue in 1710; nay, their zeal outwent their predecessors’, when they pulled down the meeting-houses of Protestant Dissenters, and burned the materials in the open streets, in maintenance of the doctrines of passive obedience and nonresistance, which their pious confessor had been preaching up; “a bold, insolent man,” says Bishop Burnet, “with a very small measure of religion, virtue, learning, or good sense:” but to such extremes do men’s passions carry them when they write to serve a cause! I have had occasion to make some use of Dr. Walker’s confused heap of materials, but have endeavoured carefully to avoid his spirit and language.

No man has declaimed so bitterly against the proceedings of Parliament upon all occasions as this clergyman; nor complained more loudly of the unspeakable damage the liberal arts and sciences sustained by their purging the two universities; the new heads and fellows of Oxford are called “a colony of Presbyterian and Independent novices from Cambridge; a tribe of ignorant enthusiasts and schismatics; an illiterate rabble, swept from the plough-tail, from shops and grammar-schools,” &c. The University of Cambridge is reported by the same author “to be reduced to a mere Munster by the knipper-dolings of the age, who broke the heart-strings of learned men, who thrust out one of the eyes of the kingdom, and made eloquence dumb, philosophy sottish, widowed the arts, drove away the muses from their ancient habitation, and plucked the reverend and orthodox professors out of their chairs. They turned religion into rebellion, and changed the apostolical chair into a desk for blasphemy. They took the garland from off the head of learning, and placed it on the dull brows of ignorance. And having unhived a numerous swarm of labouring bees, they placed in their room swarms of senseless drones.” Such is the language of our historian, transcribed from Dr. Berwick! I have carefully looked into this affair, and collected the characters of the old and new professors from the most approved writers, that the disinterested reader may judge how far religion and learning suffered by the exchange.

The close of this volume, which relates the disputes between the Parliament and army; the ill success of his majesty’s arms and treaties; the seizure of his royal person a second time by the army; his trial before a pretended high court of justice, and his unparalleled execution before the gates of his royal palace by the military power, is a most melancholy and affecting scene; in which, next to the all-disposing providence of God, one cannot but remark the king’s inflexible temper, together with the indiscretion of his friends, especially his divines, at a time when his crown was lost by the fortune of war, and his very life at the mercy of his enemies. Nor is the unwarrantable stiffness of the Parliament less unaccountable, when they saw the victorious army drawing towards London, flushed with the defeat of the Scots and English loyalists, and determined to set aside that very uniformity they were contending for. If his majesty had yielded at first what he did at last, with an appearance of sincerity; or if the two Houses had complied with his concessions while Cromwell was in Scotland; or if the army had been made easy by a general indulgence and toleration, with the distribution of some honours and bounty-money among the officers, the crown and Constitution might have been saved; “but so many miraculous circumstances contributed to his majesty’s ruin,” says Lord Clarendon, “that men might well think that heaven and earth conspired it.”

The objections to the first volume of the History of the Puritans, by the author of “The Vindication of the Government, Doctrine, and Worship of the Church of England,” obliged me to review the principal facts in a small pamphlet, wherein I have endeavoured to discharge myself as an historian, without undertaking the defence of their several principles, or making myself an advocate for the whole of their conduct. I took the liberty to point out the mistakes of our first Reformers as I passed along, but with no design to blacken their memories; for, with all their foibles, they were glorious instruments in the hand of Providence to deliver this nation from anti-Christian bondage; but they were free to confess the work was left imperfect; that they had gone as far as the times would admit, and hoped their successors would bring the Reformation to a greater perfection.

But the state of the controversy was entirely changed in the time of the civil wars: for after the coming in of the Scots, the Puritans did not fight for a reformation of the hierarchy, nor for the generous principles of religious liberty to all peaceable subjects, but for the same spiritual power the bishops had exercised; for when they had got rid of the oppression of the spiritual courts, under which they had groaned almost fourscore years, they were for setting up a number of Presbyterian consistories in all the parishes of England, equally burdensome and oppressive. Unhappy extreme! that wise and good men should not discover the beautiful consistency of truth and liberty! Dr. Barrow and others have observed, that in the first and purest ages of Christianity, the Church had no coercive power, and apprehend that it may still subsist very well without it.

The body of Protestant Dissenters of the present age have a just abhorrence of the persecuting spirit of their predecessors, and are content that their actions be set in a fair light, as a warning to posterity. They have no less a dread of returning into the hands of spiritual courts, founded on the bottomless deep of the canon law, and see no reason why they should not be equally exposed, till they are put upon a better foot; though it is an unpardonable crime, in the opinion of some churchmen, to take notice, even in the most respectful manner, of the least blemish in our present establishment, which, how valuable soever in itself, is allowed by all to be capable of amendments. Some little essays of this kind have fired the zeal of the Bishop of Litchfield and, Coventry, who, in a late charge to the clergy of his diocese, is pleased to lament over the times in the following mournful language: “At so critical a juncture,” says his lordship, “when common Christianity is treated with an avowed contempt and open profaneness; when an undisguised immorality prevails so very generally; when there is scarce honesty enough to save the nation from ruin; when, with regard to the Established Church in particular, the royal supremacy is professedly exposed, as inconsistent with the rights of conscience, even that supremacy, which was the groundwork of the Reformation among us from popery, which was acknowledged and sworn to by the old Puritans, though now, inconsistently enough, disowned and condemned in the new history and vindication of them and their principles; when so destructive an attempt has been made on the legal maintenance of the clergy by the late Tithe Bill, and, consequently, on the fate of the Christian religion among us; when an attempt has been lately made on the important outworks of our ecclesiastical establishment, the Corporation and Test Acts, with the greatest insolences towards the Church, and most undutiful menaces to the civil government; when the Episcopal authority has been wellnigh undermined, under a pretence of reforming the ecclesiastical courts; and if that order had been rendered useless, as it must have been when it had lost its authority, then the revenues would have been soon thought useless; and in the result of things, the order itself might have been considered as superfluous, and perhaps, in due time, thought fit to be abolished; when churches have been put into such a method of repair as would end in their ruin in a little time; and when the correction of the abuses of the matrimonial licenses has been laboured in so absurd a manner as to permit the marriage of minors without consent of their parents or guardians; when these melancholy circumstances have so lately concurred, it is natural to infer our zeal for the Church should be in proportion to its danger; and if these are not proper occasions for zeal for our ecclesiastical constitution, it is not easy to assign circumstances that may justly demand it.” How fine and subtle are these speculations! I have not observed any insolences towards the Church, or undutiful menaces to the civil government in the late writings of the Dissenters; but if one pin of the hierarchy be removed by the wisdom of the Legislature, the whole building is supposed to fall, and all religion along with it. His lordship, therefore, advises his clergy to study the Bishop of London’s Codex, in order to defend it; and it can do them no real prejudice to examine, at the same time, the principles of law and equity on which it is founded. As to the Dissenters, his lordship adds, “However, it will become us of the clergy, in point of prudence, not to give any just suspicions of our disgust to the legal toleration of them, while they keep within due bounds; that is, while they do not break in upon the privileges and rights of the Established Church, by declaring against all legal establishments, or the legal establishment of the Church of England in particular, or by not being quiet with the present limits of their toleration, or by affecting posts of authority, and thereby breaking down the fences of the Church, and placing themselves on a level with it.” But whether this would remain a point of prudence with his lordship, if the boundaries of his episcopal power were enlarged, is not very difficult to determine.

The Dissenters have no envy nor ill-will to the Churches of England or Scotland, established by law (attended with a toleration of all peaceable Dissenters), any farther than they encroach on the natural or social rights of mankind; nor are they so weak as not to distinguish between high dignities, great authority, and large revenues secured by law, and a poor maintenance arising from the voluntary contributions of the people, that is, between an establishment and a toleration.

But I am to attend to the charge of inconsistency brought against myself. I had observed, upon the reign of the bloody Queen Mary, that an absolute supremacy over the consciences of men, lodged with a single person, might as well be prejudicial as serviceable to true religion; and in the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, that the powers then claimed by the kings and queens of England were in a manner the same with those claimed by the popes in the times preceding the Reformation, except the administration of the spiritual offices of the Church. This was that supremacy which was the groundwork of the Reformation: of which I say, let the reader judge how far these high powers are agreeable or consistent with the natural rights of mankind. His lordship calls this a professed exposing the royal supremacy, and the rather, because “that supremacy was acknowledged and sworn to by the old Puritans themselves, though now, inconsistently enough, disowned and condemned by their historian.” But surely his lordship should have informed his clergy, at the same time, in what sense the Puritans took the oath, when it was before his eyes in the same page; and my words are these: “The whole body of the papists refused the oath of supremacy, as inconsistent with their allegiance to the pope; but the Puritans took it under all these disadvantages, with the queen’s explication in her injunctions, that is, that no more was intended than that her majesty, under God, had the sovereignty and rule over all persons born in her realm, either ecclesiastical or temporal, so as no foreign power had, or ought to have, any superiority over them.” Where is the inconsistency of this conduct of the old Puritans, or their new historian? Or, where is the Dissenter in England who is not ready to swear to it with, this explication?

But his lordship is pleased to reason upon this head; and in order to support that absolute supremacy which was the groundwork of the Reformation, affirms, that “all Christian kings and emperors have the same power of reforming religion, and are under the same obligations as the Jewish kings were in cases of the like nature,” without producing the least evidence or proof; whereas his lordship knows that the government of the Jews was a theocracy; that God himself was their king, and the laws of that nation strictly and properly the laws of God, who is Lord of conscience, and may annex what sanctions he pleases. Their judges and kings were chosen and appointed by God, not to make a new codex or book of laws either for Church or State, but to keep the people to the strict observation of those laws and statutes that he himself had given them by the hand of Moses.

His lordship is pleased to ask, “If any high pretender to spiritual liberty and the rights of conscience should inquire what authority the respective Jewish and Christian powers had to interpose in matters that regarded the rights of conscience, since, in fact, their assumed supremacy was a usurpation of those natural rights?” I answer, that with regard to the Jews, it was no usurpation, for the reasons before mentioned; and when his lordship shall prove a transfer of the same power to all Christian princes, the controversy will be brought to a short issue. “But will it not be replied,” says the bishop, “that those kings and emperors were intrusted by God with the care of the ecclesiastical as well as civil constitution?” If by the care of the constitution he meant no more than the preserving their subjects in the enjoyment of their inalienable rights, nobody denies it; but if, under this pretence, they assume a sovereign and arbitrary power of modelling the ecclesiastical constitution according to their pleasure, and of enforcing their subjects’ obedience by canons and penal laws, I should doubt whether they are obliged to comply, even in things not absolutely sinful in themselves, because it may derogate from the kingly office of Christ, who is sole king and lawgiver in his own kingdom, and has not delegated this branch of his authority to any vicar-general upon earth. But I readily agree with his lordship, that if any high pretender to the rights of conscience should have asked the first Christian emperors by what authority they took on themselves the alteration or change of religion, they would have thought the question unreasonable, and worthy of censure; they would have affirmed their own sovereignty, and have taught the bold inquirers as Gideon did the men of Succoth, with briers and thorns of the wilderness.

The bishop goes on: “Let us now transfer this power of Jewish kings and Christian emperors to our own kings, and the case will admit of an easy decision.” If, indeed, an absolute supremacy in matters of religion be the natural and inalienable right of every Christian king and emperor, the dispute is at an end; but if it depend upon a transfer, we must beg pardon if we desire his lordship to produce his commission for transferring the same powers that Almighty God gave the Jewish kings of his own appointment to the first Christian emperors, who were neither chosen by God, nor the people, nor the Senate of Rome, but usurped the supreme authority by the assistance of the military arm, and were some of them the greatest tyrants and scourges of mankind.

His lordship adds, “Have not the English kings since the Reformation actually been invested with the same supremacy as the Jewish kings and Christian emperors were?” I answer, such a supremacy is, in my judgment, inconsistent with our present Constitution and the laws in being. The supremacy claimed by King Henry VIII. and his successors, at the Reformation, was found by experience too excessive, and therefore abridged in the reigns of King Charles I. and King William III. No one doubts but that the kings of England are obliged to protect religion and defend the establishment as long as the Legislature think fit to continue it; but as they may not suspend or change it by their sovereign pleasure, so neither may they publish edicts of their own to enforce it, as was the case of the first Christian emperors. The reader will excuse this digression, as necessary to support a principal fact of my history.

I am sufficiently aware of the delicacy of the affairs treated of in this volume, and of the tenderness of the ground I go over; and though I have been very careful of my temper and language, and have endeavoured to look into the mysterious conduct of the several parties with all the indifference of a spectator, I find it very difficult to form an exact judgment of the most important events, or to speak freely without offence; therefore, if any passionate or angry writer should appear against this, or any of the former volumes, I humbly request the reader to pay no regard to personal reflections, or to any insinuations of any ill designs against the established religion or the public peace, which are entirely groundless. I am as far from vindicating the spirit and conduct of the warmer Puritans as of the governing prelates of those times; there was hard measure on both sides, though, if we separate politics from principles of pure religion, the balance will be very much in favour of the Puritans. In historical debates nothing is to be received upon trust, but facts are to be examined, and a judgment formed upon the authority by which those facts are supported; by this method we shall arrive at truth; and if it shall appear that in the course of this long history there are any considerable mistakes, the world may be assured I will take the first opportunity to retract or amend them, having no private or party views, no prospect of preferment or other reward for my labours than the satisfaction of doing some service to truth, and to the religious and civil liberties of mankind; and yet, after all, I must bespeak the indulgence and candour of my readers, which those who are sensible of the labour and toil of collecting so many materials, and ranging them in their proper order, will readily allow to one who sincerely wishes the prosperity and welfare of all good men, and that the violence and outrage of these unhappy times, which brought such confusion and misery both on king and people, may never be imitated by the present or any future age.


London, November 4th, 1735.



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