Posted by: Democratic Thinker | April 6, 2010

The History of the Puritans—Preface, Vol. IV

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.

In passing a judgment on the several parties in Church and State, I have carefully distinguished between those who went into all the arbitrary measures of the court, and such as stood firm by the Protestant religion and the liberties of their country; for it must be allowed, that in the reign of King Charles II. there were even among the clergy some of the worst as well as best of men, . . .

Preface
to VOL. IV;
The History of the Puritans.

—————


Daniel Neal.

THIS volume brings the History of the Sufferings of the Puritans down to its period, for though the Protestant Dissenters have since complained of several difficulties and discouragements, yet most of the penal laws have been suspended; the prosecutions of the spiritual courts have been considerably restrained by the kind interposition of the civil powers, and liberty of conscience enjoyed without the hazard of fines, imprisonments, and other terrors of this world.

The times now in review were stormy and boisterous: upon the death of King Charles I., the Constitution was dissolved: the men at the helm had no legal authority to change the government into a commonwealth, the protectorship of Cromwell was a usurpation, because grafted only on the military power, and so were all the misshapen forms into which the administration was cast till the restoration of the king. In order to pass a right judgment upon these extraordinary revolutions, the temper and circumstances of the nation are to be duly considered; for those actions which in some circumstances are highly criminal, may, in a different situation of affairs, become necessary. The parties engaged in the civil wars were yet living, and their resentments against each other so much inflamed as to cut off all hopes of a reconciliation; each dreaded the other’s success, well knowing they must fall a sacrifice to those who should prevail. All present views of the king’s recovering his father’s throne were defeated at the battle of Worcester, the Loyalists being then entirely broken and dispersed; so that if some such extraordinary genius as Cromwell’s had not undertaken to steer the nation through the storm, it had not been possible to hold the government together till Providence should open a way for restoring the Constitution, and settling it on its legal basis.

The various forms of government (if they deserve that name) which the officers of the army introduced after the death of Cromwell, made the nation sick of their phrensies, and turned their eyes towards their banished sovereign, whose restoration, after all, could not be accomplished without great imprudence on one part, and the most artful dissimulation on the other. The Presbyterians, like weak politicians, surrendered at discretion, and parted with their power on no other security than the royal word, for which they have been sufficiently reproached; though I am of opinion, that if the king had been brought in by a treaty, the succeeding Parliament would have set it aside. On the other hand, nothing can be more notorious than the deep hypocrisy of General Monk, and the solemn assurances given by the bishops and other Loyalists, and even by the king himself, of burying all past offences under the foundation of the Restoration; but when they were lifted into the saddle, the haste they made to show how little they meant by their promises exceeded the rules of decency as well as honour. Nothing would satisfy till their adversaries were disarmed, and in a manner deprived of the protection of the government: the terms of conformity were made narrower and more exceptionable than before the civil wars, the penal laws were rigorously executed, and new ones framed almost every sessions of Parliament for several successive years, the Nonconformist ministers were banished five miles from all the corporations in England, and their people sold for sums of money to carry on the king’s unlawful pleasures, and to bribe the nation into popery and slavery, till the House of Commons, awakened at last with a sense of the threatening danger, grew intractable, and was therefore dissolved. His majesty having in vain attempted several other representatives of the people, determined, some time before his death, to change the Constitution, and govern by his sovereign will and pleasure, that the mischiefs which could not be brought upon the nation by consent of Parliament, might be introduced under the wing of the prerogative; but the Roman Catholics, not satisfied with the slow proceedings of a disguised Protestant or apprehending that the discontents of the people and his own love of ease might induce him some time or other to change measures, resolved to have a prince of the own religion and more sanguine principles on the throne, which hastened the crisis of the nation, and brought forward that glorious revolution of King William and Queen Mary, which put a final period to all their projects.

The nature of my design does not admit of a large and particular relation of all the civil transactions of these times, but only of such a summary as may give light to the affairs of religion; and I could have wished that the memory of both had been entirely blotted out of the records of time, if the animosities of the several parties and their unchristian principles had been buried with them; but as the remembering them may be a warning to posterity, it ought to give no offence to any denomination of Christians in the present age, who are noways answerable for the conduct of their ancestors, nor can otherwise share in a censure of it, than as they maintain the same principles, and imitate the same unchristian behaviour. At the end of each year I have added the characters of the principal Nonconformist ministers as they died, partly from the historians of those times, but chiefly from the writings of the late Reverend Dr. Calamy, whose integrity, moderation, and industry deserve a peculiar commendation. My design was to preserve the memory of the reverend assembly of divines at Westminster, as well as the little army of confessors, who afterward suffered so deeply in the cause of nonconformity.

In passing a judgment on the several parties in Church and State, I have carefully distinguished between those who went into all the arbitrary measures of the court, and such as stood firm by the Protestant religion and the liberties of their country; for it must be allowed, that in the reign of King Charles II. there were even among the clergy some of the worst as well as best of men, as will appear to a demonstration in the course of this history; but I desire no greater stress may be laid upon facts or characters than the quality of the vouchers in the margin will support. Where these have been differently related, I have relied on the best authorities, and sometimes reported from both sides, leaving the reader to choose for himself; for if facts are fairly represented, the historian is discharged. I am not so vain as to imagine this history free from errors; but if any mistakes of consequence are made to appear, they shall be acknowledged with thankfulness to those who shall point them out in a civil and friendly manner; and as I aim at nothing but truth, I see no reason to engage in a warm defence of any parties of Christians who pass before us in review, but leave their conduct to the censure of the world. Some few remarks of my own are here and there interspersed, which the reader will receive according as he apprehends them to follow from the premises; but I flatter myself, that when he has carefully perused the several volumes of this history, he will agree with me in the following conclusions:

1st. That uniformity of sentiments in religion is not to be attained among Christians; nor will a comprehension within an establishment be of service to the cause of truth and liberty, without a toleration of all other dutiful subjects. Wise and good men, after their most diligent searches after truth, have seen things in a different light, which is not to be avoided as long as they have liberty to judge for themselves. If Christ had appointed an infallible judge upon earth, or men were to be determined by an implicit faith in their superiors, there would be an end of such differences; but all the engines of human policy that have been set at work to obtain it have hitherto failed of success. Subscriptions, and a variety of oaths and other tests, have occasioned great mischiefs to the Church: by these means men of weak morals and ambitious views have been raised to the highest preferments, while others of stricter virtue and superior talents have been neglected and laid aside; and power has been lodged in the hands of those who have used it in an unchristian manner, to force men to an agreement in sounds and outward appearances, contrary to the true conviction and sense of their minds, and thus a lasting reproach has been brought on the Christa name, and on the genuine principles of a Protestant Church.

2dly. All parties of Christians, when in power, have been guilty of persecution for conscience’ sake. The annals of the Church are a most melancholy demonstration of this truth. Let the reader call to mind the bloody proceedings of the popish bishops in Queen Mary’s reign, and the account that has been given of the Star Chamber and High Commission Court in later times; what numbers of useful ministers have been sequestered, imprisoned, and their families reduced to poverty and disgrace, for refusing to wear a white surplice, or to comply with a few indifferent ceremonies! What havoc did the Presbyterians make with their covenant uniformity, their jure divino discipline, and their rigid prohibition of reading the old service-book! And though the Independents had a better notion of the rights of conscience, how defective was their instrument of government under Cromwell! how arbitrary the proceedings of their triers! how narrow their list of fundamentals! and how severe their restraints of the press! And though the rigorous proceedings of the Puritans of this age did by no means rival those of the prelates before and after the civil wars, yet they are so many species of persecution, and not to be justified even by the confession of the times in which they were acted.

3dly. It is unsafe and dangerous to intrust any sort of clergy with the power of the sword: for our Saviour’s kingdom is not of this world; “if it were,” says he, “then would my servants fight, but now is my kingdom not from hence.” The Church and State should stand on a distinct basis, and their jurisdiction be agreeable to the nature of their crimes; those of the Church purely spiritual, and those of the State purely civil; as the king is supreme in the State, he is also head, or guardian, of the Church in those spiritual rights that Christ has intrusted it with. When the Church in former ages first assumed the secular power, it not only rivalled the State, but in a little time lifted up its head above emperors and kings, and all the potentates of the earth: the thunder of its anathemas was heard in all nations, and in her skirts was found the blood of the prophets and saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. And whenever it recovers the wound that was given it at the Reformation, it will undoubtedly resume the same absolute coercive dominion. It is therefore the interest of all sovereign princes to keep their clergy within the limits that Christ has prescribed for them in the New Testament, and not to trust them with the power of inflicting corporeal pains or penalties on their subjects, which have no relation to the Christian methods of conversion.

4thly. Reformation of religion, or a redress of grievances in the Church, has not, in fact, arisen from the clergy. I would not be thought to reflect upon that venerable order, which is of great usefulness and deserved honour, when the ends of its institution are pursued; but so strange has been the infatuation, so enchanting the lust of dominion and the charms of riches and honour, that the propagation of piety and virtue has been very much neglected, and little else thought of but how they might rise higher in the authority and grandeur of this world, and fortify their strongholds against all that should attack them. In the dawn of the Reformation the clergy maintained the pope’s supremacy against the king, till they were cast in a præmunire. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth there was but one of the whole bench who would join in the consecration of a Protestant bishop; and when the Reformation was established, how cruelly did those Protestant bishops, who themselves had suffered for religion, vex the Puritans, because they could not come up to their standard! How unfriendly did they behave at the Hampton Court Conference! At the restoration of King Charles II., and at the late revolution of King William and Queen Mary! when the most solemn promises were broken, and the most hopeful opportunity of accommodating differences among Protestants lost, by the perverseness of the clergy towards those very men who had saved them from ruin. So little ground is there to hope for a union among Christians, or the propagation of truth, peace, and charity, from councils, synods, general assemblies, or convocations of the clergy of any sort whatsoever.

5thly. Upon these principles, it is evident that freedom of religion, in subordination to the civil power, is for the benefit of society, and noways inconsistent with a public establishment. The king may create dignitaries, and give sufficient encouragement to those of the public religion, without invading the liberties of his dissenting subjects. If religious establishments were stripped of their judicial processes and civil jurisdiction, no harm could be feared from them. And as his majesty is defender of the faith in Scotland as well as England, and equally the guardian of both churches, he will no doubt hold the balance, and prevent either from rising to such a pitch of greatness as to act independently on the State, or become formidable and oppressive to their neighbours: the former would create imperium in imperio; and there is but one step between the Church’s being independent on the State, and the State becoming dependant on the Church. Besides, as freedom of religion is for the true honour and dignity of the crown, it is no less for the service of the community; for the example of the neighbouring nations may convince us, that uniformity in the Church will always be attended with absolute and despotic power in the State. The meetings of dissenting Protestants were formerly called seditious, because the peace of the public was falsely supposed to consist in uniformity of worship; but long experience has taught us the contrary; for though the Nonconformists, in those times, gave no disturbance to the administration, the nation was far from being at peace but when things came to a crisis, their joining with the Church, against a corrupt court and ministry, saved the religion and liberties of the nation. It must therefore be the interest of a free people to support and encourage liberty of conscience, and not to suffer any one great and powerful religious body to oppress, devour, and swallow up the rest.

Finally. When Protestant Dissenters recollect the sufferings of their fathers in the last age for the freedom of their consciences, let them be thankful that their lot is cast in more settled times. The liberties of England are the price of a great deal of blood and treasure; wide breaches were made in the Constitution in the four reigns of the male line of the Stuarts; persecution and arbitrary power went hand in hand; the Constitution was often in convulsive agonies, when the patrons of liberty appeared boldly in the noble cause, and sacrificed their estates and lives in its defence. The Puritans stood firm by the Protestant religion, and by the liberties of their country, in the reigns of King Charles II. and King James II., and received the fire of the enemy from all their batteries, without moving sedition, or taking advantage of their persecutors, when it was afterward in their power. Some amendments, in my humble opinion, are still wanting to settle the cause of liberty on a more equal basis, and to deliver wise and good men from the fetters of oaths, subscriptions, and religious tests of all sons. But whether such desirable blessings are in reserve for this nation, must be left to the determination of an all-wise Providence. In the mean time, may Protestant Dissenters express their gratitude for the protection and ease they enjoy at present, by an undissembled piety towards God! by a firm and unshaken loyalty to his majesty’s person and wise administration! by avoiding everything that tends to persecution or censoriousness for mere differences in religion! and by the integrity of their own lives and manners! And while they think it their duty to separate from the national establishment, may they distinguish themselves by the exercise of all social virtues, and stand fast in the liberty wherewith the providence of God has made them free! By such a conduct they will preserve their characters with all sober persons, and will transmit the blessings of the present age to their latest posterity.

DANIEL NEAL.

London, March 1st, 1737-8.

[ INDEX ]


 

Click image to read Volume IV at Archive.org.


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