Concepts in 17th century religion

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'A New Gag for an Old Goose'
(Richard Montague, Arminian divine, 1624 & Charles Stuart's chaplain 1625)

Part 6 of a series of articles on religion by Simon Frame


Not really a religious group but rather a label applied by theologians of established state and national churches to those who held views which opposed them. Named from 'Anti-nomos', literally 'anti-law', applied by Luther to the teachings of Johann Agricola. Antinomians were those who rejected civil and ecclesiastical obedience as legalistic and held that moral, civil and Mosaic law (as laid down in the Pentateuch) was not binding on Christians as everyone was already saved and filled with God's grace and therefore incapable of sin (universalism). This was based upon the Epistles of St.Paul where it could be interpreted that salvation could be achieved without righteous deeds. Milton, who was accused of Antinomianism, especially when he wrote the self-serving 'The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce' supported the rejection of civil and moral law as 'laws made by our conquerors' which were 'Norman gibberish'. Anabaptists were once labelled as Antinomianists for theological reasons and because they opposed the co-operation of the church and the state.


This was denying the Holy Trinity, or denying the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Commonly known as Socinianism, after the C16th Italian rational theologians, Laelius and Faustus Socinus (or Sozzini). Socinianism attempted to bring human reason into religion, but anti-Trinitarianism was considered an extreme form of heresy, and the last burning for these views was as late as 1612. Socinianists were persecuted even when all other radicals had been granted toleration; one John Biddle, for instance, being arrested in 1655 under the Blasphemy laws1. Socinianism was another label applied by enemies to various religious opponents. The logic went as follows: if Christ is in all, then either men were gods or Christ was not divine but human. As men clearly weren't gods then Christ was only divine by virtue of his position and not by his nature, and could be considered as a mere prophet, and only the first amongst many brothers at that. (This view was supported by Baptists, Familists, Milton and Winstanley amongst others.) Also, if Christ was in all, then what use were clerics, the state church, organised prayer and all that malarkey? - a cue for opposing the current social order etc. etc. This latter view was held by Winstanley, Milton and Cromwell. Socinianism also tended to reject what was perceived as political dogma, such as many Protestants' belief that the Pope was the Antichrist, and this led to confrontation with Protestants. Socinus also held that faith repented all sin and that obedience led to eternal life.


The belief, also known as Chiliasm, that after a fixed period Christ would return to reign on earth in person, was based upon the events described in Daniel, Revelation 20:3-15, and Matthew’s Gospel. Theologians argued over the interpretation of the events described and exactly when the Millennium would occur. They prophesied a series of events: Satan would be bound for approximately 1000 years (1260 being a popular figure), after which the 'Antichrist' would set him free to wreak havoc on earth; the Jews would be converted (of which more in a later thrilling instalment) and then the Saints would rule in what was known as the 'Fifth Monarchy'. The Antichrist could be either the 'Great Turk', or the Pope if you were certain Protestants. Various interpretations gave the date of the second coming as somewhere between 1650 and 1665, 1650 being the most commonly accepted date.

Because it was an impending event, many of those who went to the Americas, for instance, didn't intend to leave England on a permanent basis, but hoped to return to a godly land after the Millennium. Millenarianism was not a fringe belief, but one which was widely accepted in the C17th, by Cromwell for one. It is still a tenet for Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists.


An abusive name used very loosely then and now and derived from approximately the 1560's via those who attempted to 'purify' the Anglican church from what they saw as 'the remnants of Popery' and free the church from concessions to politics, whilst remaining within it. 'Puritan' is a term generally used to cover the ‘hotter sort’ of Independents and Presbyterians, but was perhaps more appropriate to the most devout members of these churches. The church and state were so linked in the C16th and C17th that an attack on one was an attack on the other, causing Elizabeth I for instance, to call 'puritans' 'rebels'. It was only with the rise of the 'Arminian' church party that significant numbers of 'puritans' felt the need to separate from the state church, although as late as 1646, some didn't want toleration granted to radicals. As Thomas Edwardes wrote in his 'Gangraena'; 'If a toleration were granted, men should never have peace in their families more, or ever after have command of wives, children, servants'.

'Puritans' aimed to administer the sacraments without idolatry, use discipline and hard work to benefit the commonwealth (small 'c') and maintain discipline by self example. Worship was to be purified of its frivolities according to the biblical model; the ten commandments were particularly important and biblical texts and psalms were central to this. Apart from 'Popery', other issues attracted their attention, such as keeping the Sabbath free from things like 'Churchales', which were festivals held in the churchyard after Sunday evening prayers.2

The C20th image of dour puritans is largely a product of propaganda, although the more extreme or fundamental types may have conformed to the popular image. The association with short hair may be due to the fact that short hair was historically a sign of piety (i.e Henry V), and that the very politicised apprentices often had short hair so that their masters could spot them in the street if they were bunking off work. In his diary Pepys reports apprentices wrecking a brothel, but doesn't say whether it was for religious-cum-moral grounds or because they caught the pox.


1 He got off with banishment to the Scilly Isles and was given the sum of 100 crowns by Cromwell.

2 Alleged to lead to disorder, drunkenness, riot and illegitimacy, but not necessarily in that order.