Some Tenets of Protestant Reformation

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Part 2 of a series on religion in the Civil Wars by Simon Frame


Predestination was a central tenet of Protestantism and in direct opposition to Catholic teachings, particularly the 'double' Calvinist form which insisted that 'eternal life is foreordained for some (the 'elect'), eternal damnation for others'. In other words, your destiny is predetermined by God's decree and cannot be changed. They believed that the elect communicated with God directly and did not require mediators like priests and Bishops. Unfortunately there was no way of distinguishing the elect from the masses, who still needed the guiding control of the church, but leading a 'pure' lifestyle and striving to be Godly could be interpreted as signs of election.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, supported the belief of 'Free Will' whereby everyone had the freedom to accept or reject God's grace which was open to all through the mediation of the church. For them, salvation was obtainable via good works. Calvinists also believed in 'Justification by grace through faith' rather than by conforming to the ceremonies of the church. This was based upon the teaching of St. Paul in Ephesians ii:8; you had to believe to be saved and undertaking good works would get you nowhere. However, although good works wouldn't save you, these and a moral lifestyle provided evidence of a state of grace. Others, including the Ranters attacked justification by works as a form of idolatry, unless the works were for the benefit of others.


Other features of Protestantism included the reduction of the Sacraments to two; baptism and the Eucharist along with the removal of elements of church ceremony and ritual. For example, Protestants held that being cured of illness was due to the unpredictable mercy of God rather than the effect of any sacrament. They opposed idolatry including priests’ vestments which, in the Catholic church, differentiated the layman from the priest. (Some Protestants called these 'conjuring garments of popery'.) The altar rail was to be removed (Milton called the altar 'a fortified bulwark' to keep off the lay members) and the communion table was to be in the middle of the church, with the minister going to the seated congregation in some cases. The shift of emphasis from the ceremony and the Liturgy itself to the moral state of the worshipper and the spreading of the faith via preaching and teachings from the scriptures, resulted in the pulpit being more important than the altar.

There were of course, many other major and minor theological differences. Most of these developments initially came to England via various parts of the Low Countries, which was embroiled in a war with Spain, encouraging religious extremism on both sides. Even so, Lutheran churches on the continent still retained the choirs, liturgy, Latin, confession etc.

The Protestant Reformation in England or '...for Kings are not only Gods Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon Gods throne...' (James I, 21st March 1610)


Until the difficulties that Henry VIII encountered in getting his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, England was Roman Catholic, although various Acts from 1529 to 1536 extended the Monarch’s control over the church. For example, in 1530, Henry issued an edict against publications which attacked the Catholic faith (and him). He wrote treatises against Luthers' Protestant reformation under the direction of Cardinal Wolseley, which earned him the papal accolade of 'Defender of the Faith', a title still borne by the monarch today. However, when pope Clement VII wouldn't annul his marriage to his brother’s widow (1), Henry enlisted the support of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to get the bishops to recognise Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England, or Anglican Church. (The divorce would probably have been easy enough except for the fact that Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who at that time controlled the Pope.) Apart from this disagreement, he didn't stray far from Catholic doctrine, apart from denying the supremacy of the Pope and his infallibility in theological matters, although he did abolish the heresy laws, allowed the clergy to marry, approved the translation of the Bible into English and agreed the preparation of the somewhat ambiguous Anglican Book of Common Prayer(to appeal to the old and the new), which was not published until after his death, and was obligatory from Whitsunday 1549. An Act of Uniformity ensured its use. A more Protestant second prayer book was issued in 1552 and this absolutely denied transubstantiation and replaced the sacrificial aspects of the Mass with a communion. It was accompanied by the Forty-two Articles, the doctrinal statement of the Anglican Church which was reduced to the Thirty Nine Articles in 1628 when it was seen by the House of Commons as rejecting predestination.

In common with Henry's pragmatic religious meanderings, in the C16th most people would have been unsure how to label themselves and the nation veered, officially and otherwise, between varying degrees of Catholicism and the Protestant church. It must not be assumed that everyone went to church and even if they did, that they cared which church it was. 'Some even nudged their neighbours, hawked and spat, knitted, made coarse remarks, told jokes, fell asleep and even let off guns' said Keith Thomas (Thomas 1971), or travelled outside their parish to hear sermons by favourite preachers.

Edward VI was a keen Protestant, but Protestant reforms were generally only popular in London and the universities; Mary Tudor was Catholic, although she never renounced her position as head of the state church. Elizabeth I was perhaps 'Anglo-Catholic' (2), and James I appeared to be Calvinist, although perhaps he had tendencies towards Catholicism, but was too clever to openly admit it and support Catholic rights, and would have paid with his life for not doing so had Guido Fawkes et al had their way.


Religion became entwined with politics and nationalism in the popular mind when Spain and France became established enemies, causing Catholicism to be identified with treason. This pushed the country towards Protestantism, and this trend was assisted by a number of events. Attempts by monarchs like Mary to pull the nation towards Catholicism by burning at the stake 'heretic' clerics (including Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury) and anyone else who opposed her, contributed as did the exposure of foreign-backed Catholic plots to put Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the throne in Elizabeth's time. In addition the Pope’s claim to be able to depose Elizabeth and his excommunication of her and the St. Bartholomew's day massacre of Protestants in France in 1572 all added fuel to the fire. Elizabeth was feted as a Protestant saviour of the church when she succeeded Mary and reinstated many of Henry VIII's changes. John Foxes' work Acts and Monuments supported this move, so much so that a copy of the book was placed in every church. Despite this, Elizabeth wasn't over zealous in persecuting Catholics, although many Catholic landowners felt obliged to keep their religion to themselves and to provide 'priest-holes' for their priests to hide in should their houses be searched. Elizabeth used another Act of Uniformity to return to the first Book of Common Prayer and an Act of Supremacy to define the Monarch’s authority in the church.

The survival of the Protestant reforms relied upon Elizabeth's successor being of a favourable religious disposition and this caused many to want the church and state to be separated. The beginnings of the separatist movement could be said to have occurred at this time (3), although most Protestants and even 'Puritans' did not want to dismantle the existing church, but to remain within it and change it. John Calvin had put forward the ideas for a church which was separated from the state, but in 1589 the English Calvinists were suppressed and incorporated into the established church and the separatists were crushed in the 1590's. James I tried to steer a middling course with regard to Catholics because he didn't want to upset the Spanish too much as war was financially unaffordable. He was prepared to distinguish between 'factious stirrers of sedition' and 'peaceable subjects'. However, he recognised that he would face political problems if he was too tolerant, so in February 1605 a purge against Recusants (Catholics who refused to attend the parish church) was ordered and about 5000 were fined. Private worship at home was largely ignored, and some powerful, openly Catholic landowners were free from prosecution because they were, or controlled, the JP's and magistrates. It has been estimated that only 1-6% of the population was Catholic, with Catholicism more popular in the North and particularly the Northeast, and the 'skirts and dark corners of the country'. In 1606 they were required to take the Oath of Allegiance which declared their religion to be a 'damnable doctrine' amongst other things. Not surprisingly, many refused this outrage, but this laid them open to charges of sedition.

On the subject of the Anglican Church, James was sympathetic to some of the 'puritan' demands but he also appointed Richard Bancroft as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1604; he hated the 'puritans' and passed canons which ordered the use of the sign of the cross in baptism, bowing at the name of Jesus and the wearing of clerical dress. Failure to conform would lead to removal of clerics from their livings, which caused a flood of protest. James considered the 'Geneva' Bible to have subversive footnotes so a new English translation was ordered, called the 'Authorized Version' and completed in 1611. The Commons was getting pretty heated about the threat of Catholicism even then; in 1621 a Commons petition read that Catholicism 'will aspire to superiority' and 'get a subversion of the true religion'. Not a good omen for a king who would have a Catholic wife.....


(1) A dubious marriage according to the church rules on affinity, based on that biblical text favoured by Devereux's; Leviticus, but given dispensation by pope Julius II. (2) Elizabeth's own chapel had candles and many Catholic-style features, but if she had become Catholic, she would have to follow the Pope's ruling that Henry VIII's divorce and subsequent marriages (including that to her own mother) were invalid, and she would therefore be illegitimate. (3) In 1582 the 'separatist' Robert Browne said that true Christians should separate from the Church of England


Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1971