Pulpit in Parliament: Puritanism During the English Civil Wars, 1640-1648

Pulpit in Parliament: Puritanism During the English Civil Wars, 1640-1648

by John Frederick Wilson

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Before the outbreak of hostilities between Charles I and the Long Parliament, the King had authorized a regular monthly fast for the realm which members of parliament later adopted as a program of national humiliation. At the invitation of individual members of parliament, two preachers, generally leading puritan clerics connected with the Westminster Assembly,


Before the outbreak of hostilities between Charles I and the Long Parliament, the King had authorized a regular monthly fast for the realm which members of parliament later adopted as a program of national humiliation. At the invitation of individual members of parliament, two preachers, generally leading puritan clerics connected with the Westminster Assembly, which had been convened for the purpose of reforming the Church of England, were invited to speak. Drawing from some 240 published sermons, Professor Wilson presents a survey of the program, giving detailed scrutiny to the form and contents of the sermons. His aim throughout is to clarify the puritans' conceptions of the relationship between their religious movement and the political events of the period, and to assess the importance of these sermons for the interpretation of Puritanism.

Originally published in 1969.

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Pulpit in Parliament

Puritanism During the English Civil Wars 1640-1648

By John F. Wilson


Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07157-2


Preaching in the Long Parliament

IN BEHEMOTH Thomas Hobbes proposed that the decades between 1640 and 1660 might be taken as the "highest of time" in which was concentrated all manner of social disorder. To survey it was like being set upon a veritable "Devils Mountain" from which there was available "a Prospect of all kinds of Injustice, and of all kinds of Folly that the World could afford." Accordingly, his review of the "causes" of the English civil wars became a study in the subversion of, and eventual return to, established order. Hobbes's point of departure was a basic question: how had it been possible for a stable country to be reduced to virtual chaos when it boasted a six hundred-year-old monarchy secured by enough trained soldiers to constitute an army numbering sixty thousand (which was equipped with "divers Magazines of Ammunition in places fortified")? He concluded that only the corruption and seduction of the people could explain this utter breakdown of authority and power. Clearly seducers of "divers sorts" had been at work; chief among them, in Hobbes's estimation, were "Ministers (as they call'd themselves) of Christ." The theme of "presbyterian" perfidy runs throughout the extended dialogue. At various points he termed the ministers "seditious," specifically accusing them of preaching rebellion from their pulpits. He also viewed them as endowed with a "histrionique faculty" and directly linked them with "Ambitious Ignorant Orators." That such men should have been permitted to exercise great influence within the body politic was manifestly, in Hobbes's opinion, one of the basic "causes" of the turmoil England had suffered.

The argument Hobbes advanced, that puritan ministers had been instrumental in the subversion of the realm, combined at least two judgments. In the first place, he estimated the degree of influence which they exercised within the realm. It had been, he asserted, so significant as to have constituted a chief cause of the civil wars. His other judgment concerned the manner or effective mode through which their influence was exerted. He believed that the puritans were primarily distinguished by their activity as preachers, that is, as propagandists. Hobbes's argument, of course, was based upon a conjunction of these "observations." During the last thirty years of the present century, major studies of puritan materials have offered related arguments, interpreted, however, within markedly different contexts.

Several generations of students interested in Puritanism have been instructed by the writings of William Haller. The Rise of Puritanism has been an extraordinarily influential study on both shores of the Atlantic, representing as it does the way in which clerical puritans were effective within Stuart England primarily as publicists and preachers. Its sequel has interpreted the "Puritan Revolution" as well from that point of view. Contemporary with Haller's earlier study was a new edition of the important Army Debates (1647-1649), including an extended essay-introduction (together with supplementary documents) by A.S.P. Woodhouse. By implication Puritanism and Liberty also stressed the importance of the sermon and the religious tract as critical to an understanding of the relationship between English Puritanism and the public realm of politics. These authors, and those who have followed them, have emphasized — though not narrowly — the direct and indirect contributions made by Puritanism to that "freedom" which is cherished within modern liberal society.

Within the last decade there has been renewed interest in the connection between religious Puritanism and revolutionary behavior during the period of civil war and the Interregnum. Christopher Hill, for instance, while arguing against designation of the era as the "Puritan Revolution," nevertheless has underscored the radical engagement of the religious movement with the developing English society. Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, for his part, has pointed up the continuing clerical presence and participation in the political struggles of the epoch. Another author, Michael Walzer, has undertaken to represent the puritans as ideologues of a "revolution of the saints." No less than in William Haller's work, the significance of the puritan sermon and the religious tract is acknowledged in these studies. Preaching especially has been recognized as important in effecting the purposes of the reforming party within the Church of England. Although some of these authors might draw back from Hobbes's judgment that puritan propagandistic activity was a chief "cause" of the civil wars, all of them (and others as well) would seem to concur that preaching had a crucial impact and was without question one dominant mode of puritan influence, particularly during the 1640's.

In view of this widespread agreement about the importance of the sermon as a vehicle for puritan influence, it is surprising that comparatively little attention has been directed to that literature as a particular type of source (insofar as it is accessible) specifically useful in study of the decade of civil war and valuable for interpretation of Puritanism as a religious movement. Consideration of this material is, of course, implicit in many of the studies already cited, as well as in others. Godfrey Davies, for example, apparently had this subject in mind when drafting the article he entitled "English Political Sermons, 1603-40." Leo Solt recognized that the preaching of the chaplains in the New Model Army constituted a discrete body of material. There have been no critical surveys of the preaching of the Civil War period, however, nor any major systematic attempts to study puritan preaching more generally in relationship to the public realm.

Putting aside the vexing question of the precise degree to which the clerics exerted influence, the present monograph directs attention to the second aspect of Hobbes's argument, specifically his judgment about the character and content of puritan political preaching during the civil wars. The intention underlying this investigation is to offer reasonably secure generalizations about the terms in which puritans, as members of a relatively coherent religious movement, understood the revolutionary political epoch which has taken their name. As a result, we may gain some insight into their conception(s) of the relationship between the movement to which they belonged and the political events of the period. The specific subject matter to be considered is the preaching of puritan divines (mainly members of the Westminster Assembly) to the Long Parliament (primarily the House of Commons). In all there are available a series of approximately two hundred and forty published sermons dating from the decade of the 1640's in which the chief clerical members of the puritan movement, at the invitation of the houses of parliament, preached to the latter largely in the context of formal fasts of humiliation and thanksgiving celebrations for the common cause. These provide a unique opportunity to examine how the constitutive members of the puritan movement conceived of the social crisis and advocated responses to it. Thus the sermons give access not only to individual interpretations of events within the period but, more important, to a collective and (to some degree) officially authorized construction of the "times."

Collectively the formal preaching before members of the Long Parliament was extensive in scope and internally diverse. At one level this study simply attempts to chronicle the development of the preaching institution. Beyond this, however, considerable attention will be given to the content of the sermons which actually reached print. The latter constitute separate classes which reflect different types of occasions on which sermons were delivered. A brief review of these classes will indicate both the scope of the institution and the dimensions of the literature under analysis.

Minor Classes. A small proportion of the parliamentary sermons reaching print originated under certain definite sets of circumstances. Five minor groups, which include some twenty published exhortations, may be identified.

1. Opening sermons. A few sermons were authorized at the beginning of the Long Parliament, essentially as a continuation of practices established in previous parliaments. Under James and Charles preaching to parliament had been related to the administration of the sacrament as a test of loyalty. This development is traced in the following chapter, for in many respects it anticipated and probably made possible the remarkable program of authorized fast and thanksgiving preaching which became prominent within the Long Parliament.

2. Sermons to sundry members. Another group of printed sermons originated at occasions which appear to have been organized by some members of the Long Parliament during the spring of 1641 and which were probably confined to a three-month period of that year. This class, unlike the others under consideration, was not officially sponsored by either one or both of the houses. In at least certain cases, however, the publication of these exhortations was permitted by a committee of Commons, and the circumstance of their delivery to "sundry of the House of Commons" was frankly advertised.

3. Powder Plot sermons. Annual sermons commemorating Guy Fawkes Day or the "Powder Plot" were a regular feature of the Long Parliament. These occasions were used by the preachers to rehearse the alleged threats from "Rome," a theme generally accented throughout the preaching before parliament.

4. Covenanting sermons. The parliamentary agreement to the Solemn League and Covenant with Scotland, and subscription to it on the part of individual members, provided several occasions for preaching during the late summer and early fall of 1643. The Covenant itself (as well as the sermons at the ceremonies for its solemnization) was closely related to the overall program.

5. State funerals. A very few published sermons were originally delivered at state funerals for prominent or commanding figures in the parliamentary cause, especially Pym and Essex. This class merges into funeral orations for individuals of lesser stature.

Major Classes. The published sermons which constitute the preceding five classes will be considered, when appropriate, in the course of the succeeding chapters. The basic material under discussion in this monograph, however, falls into three additional classes, each of which is numerically far larger than the minor groups taken singly or together. The existence of these major classes of printed exhortations provides the raison d'être for this study.

1. Monthly Commons fast sermons. The basic and most extensive series of sermons was delivered to the formal and regular monthly fasts which were instituted by the House of Commons early in 1642 (N.S.) explicitly as a response to the aggravated Irish crisis. Charles initially authorized the establishment of these fasts, and their celebration was, nominally at least, extended to the realm at large. One hundred and twenty-nine published sermons are included in this, the predominant class.

2. Monthly Lords fast sermons. Although it appears that from the first the Lords may have observed the monthly fasts, at least informally, their practice was rendered explicit and thus fully parallel to that of the lower house only in October 1644. Thereafter publication of these sermons was also invited, though marked by a response less regular than that which greeted those delivered to Commons. Thus the class of sermons originating from the Lords regular fasts appears to have been, fundamentally, a duplication of the Commons program. Thirty-six published exhortations represent this group.

3. Exhortations to occasional fasts and thanksgivings. Throughout the decade special humiliations and thanksgiving celebrations were authorized in response to the particular fortunes of the parliamentary cause. During the major military campaigns toward the climax of the first civil war, these fasts and feasts became remarkably frequent. Often the Lords joined the lower house in these affairs if the upper house did not sponsor its own. At times other appropriate authorities participated — the Westminster Assembly and the Lord Mayor of London, for example. On some few occasions one house appears to have organized a separate humiliation or thanksgiving. Fifty-three printed sermons belong to this class.

Preaching to parliament at formal fasts continued into the 1650's; indeed, the practice may be traced to the Restoration, although by then it was taking place on an irregular basis and at a greatly reduced rate. But 1648 was the last year during which a significant number of the sermons delivered actually reached print. In critical respects the death of Charles in January 1648-9 represents the most useful terminus for intensive study of the institution. At about the same time the House of Lords was abolished and Commons purged. Coincidentally a pronounced shift had occurred in the identities of those who did preach, and a striking decrease in the frequency of printing may be noted. Shortly thereafter the regular fast institution was entirely suppressed, and an effort was made to control political preaching. These several related and contemporary developments render less fruitful comparative study of the preaching beyond that point.

By way of summary it will be helpful to compare briefly the extent of the various groups of sermons which have been identified. The critical determination is the total number of sermons in the several classes, including those not published as well as — and this seems unlikely — any which may have been lost. The minor classes, excluding the series of informal fast sermons from 1641, comprise twelve printed sermons, in addition to which — according to evidence in the Journals of the House of Commons — several more were actually ddelivered, although apparent not printed. Besides the one hundred and twenty-nine printed sermons from the regular monthly Commons fast days, at least thirty-nine more which appear not to have been published are referred to in the Journals. At least eighty-six (possibly as many as one hundred and four) exhortations were originally delivered to the upper house at regular fasts between October 1644 and January 31, 1648-9 (the last ones preached). Of these, thirty-six are presently available in print. The formal extraordinary fasts and feasts are represented by fifty-three sermons out of at least eighty-seven (and probably more) originally delivered. Excluding the informal fast sermons (regarding which there are no means available to estimate the size of the class), approximately sixty-five percent — and probably no less than sixty percent — of the sermons delivered during the fast program appear to have been printed. The percentage for the numerically dominant monthly Commons humiliations is remarkably higher — above seventy-five percent. This is evidence of how important the monthly exhortations to the House of Commons are for any study such as this one.

Insofar as attention is directed to published sermons, then, preaching before Commons (especially in the monthly fast sermons) stands out as particularly prominent. It should be emphasized that this importance follows from both the nature of the institution and the available published materials. The Lords did sit for exhortations, at least occasionally, prior to the fall of 1644. Not until that time did they finally move to adopt the regular fast day practices already developed by the House of Commons (including formal designation of the preachers with the expectation that they would be invited to publish their efforts). For this reason the published sermons which had originally been preached to Commons constitute a far more extensive sequence than those which had first been delivered to the Lords. Furthermore, in general the same individuals, chiefly members of the Westminster Assembly, preached before both houses. Thus the program, when actually adopted by the Lords, and the corps of participating preachers as well were basically common to the parliament as a whole. Frequently, too, as has been indicated, the extraordinary fasts or feasts were joint affairs, usually initiated by the lower house. In addition to these points, the primacy of the preaching program to Commons reflects a general and increasing reduction in the influence of the Lords, as well as a centering of strategic considerations in the other house. The analysis of the content of preaching before the Long Parliament undertaken in subsequent chapters, therefore, will necessarily place emphasis upon the fast sermons to Commons. This concentration might appear disproportionate were the above circumstances not pointed out beforehand.


Excerpted from Pulpit in Parliament by John F. Wilson. Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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