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Divine controversy is against, and leads back to the state of gospel simplicity and purity, from which the visible Church has lapsed. And although the light may not be sufficiently clear to discover all the corruptions, nor the state of the world such as to bear their removal, yet those holy men, who act up faithfully to the degree of knowledge with which they are favoured, are worthy of double honour, as instruments for correcting the growing evils of their day, and preparing the way for further advancement in the reformation.
It is interesting to observe, that the different religious societies which have arisen since the reformation, all aimed at the attainment of greater degrees of spirituality and a more fervent piety, than was generally to be found among the sect from which they sprung. The idea, that forms were too much substituted for power, and a decent compliance with the externals of religion, for its heart-changing work, seems to have given rise to them all. Each successive advance lopped off some of the ceremonial excrescences, with a view of making the system more conformable to the Apostolic pattern. In the early part of the seventeenth century, considerable progress was made in this work, tending to prepare the way for that more full and complete exemplification of the original simplicity of the Gospel, which was exhibited to the world by George Fox and his coadjutors. It is no arrogant assumption to assert, that to whatever point in the reformation we turn our attention, we find the germ of those principles, which were subsequently developed and carried out by the founders of our Society, actuating the Reformers and leading them to results, approaching nearer to those attained by Friends, in proportion to the faithfulness and measure of light bestowed on the individual.
Opinions very similar to those held by our Society, on the subjects of the indwelling and guidance of the Holy Spirit, baptism and other ceremonies, superstitious rites, war, oaths, and a ministry of human appointment and education, were promulgated by individuals at different periods, antecedent to the rise of Friends, though not advanced as distinguishing tenets by any considerable body of professors. The reformation from Popery under Edward VI.
partial. Many of the errors and superstitions of that pompous and ceremonial religion were retained ; partly because the dawning light was not sufficient to reveal their true character, and partly in compliance with the popular prejudice in favour of ancient in. stitutions, and of a showy and imposing form of worship. There were, however, men of eminent piety and religious discernment, who perceived the degeneracy from primitive Christianity, which gave birth to those corruptions, and had since fostered their
growth and promoted their increase, until they threatened to supplant vital religion,
On the death of Edward, the hopes which these had cherished, of further advances toward the original simplicity and purity of Christianity, were extinguished by the accession of Mary, and the barbarous persecution which followed. Many sealed with their blood the testimony of a good conscience, and by faithfulness unto death, not only proved the sincerity of their profession, but prepared the way for those nearer approaches to Divine Truth, which have since been made. If the clearer spiritual light of the present day, unfolds to us some points in which the belief of those holy men was defective, it also places in stronger relief, as a noble example worthy of all imitation, the undaunted firmness and integrity of their characters, their love of Christ, and their devo tion to his cause. It cannot be viewed in any other light, than as a Divine interposition in behalf of his suffering people, that this bigoted and relentless queen so soon closed her career, after a brief and inglorious reign.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, she found herself surrounded by Papists strongly attached to their religion, and zealous for its support. Her prudence dictated a cautious course in changing the existing order of things. Too great or sudden alterations, might have hazarded the peace of the realm, and even brought her crown into jeopardy. Elizabeth, moreover, was fond of magnificence in her devotions; and in this respect, the pomp of popery suited well with her inclinations. It is questionable, indeed, whether her preference for the Protestant religion was not as much owing to her affection for her brother, King Edward, and respect for the memory of her father, as to any decided conviction of its nearer approximation to the standard of Scripture Truth.
She restored the liturgy and order of worship as established by her brother, and strictly enjoined its observance, though many of her Protestant subjects conscientiously objected to some parts of it. The idol of uniformity, and the long cherished idea of a catholic Church, to which the Papists had made such lavish sacrifices of human life, had strong attractions even for Protestants ; and Elizabeth, as well as her successors, persecuted even to death, not a few of her pious subjects, in the vain attempt to coerce the consciences of men, and reduce them to one common standard.
The doctrines and form of worship revived by Elizabeth after the death of Mary, left the minds of many much dissatisfied. They desired a more thorough separation from the errors of Po. pery; a simpler method of church government, and a purer and more spiritual religion and worship. These were called Puritans; a name which, though bestowed on them with no good design, yet agreed well with those things for which they contended.
The Protestants who fled to Frankfort, during the persecution under Queen Mary, unanimously concluded to dispense with the litany, surplice and responses of the Church of England ; that public service should begin with a general confession of sins, then the people to sing a psalm in metre in a plain tune, after which the minister should pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and proceed to sermon. These innovations on the established order of the Service-book, led to warm disputes, which soon spread into England; and though at times the breach would seem nearly closed, yet the controversy was again and again renewed, and efforts made to procure further reformations from the errors of the Romish Church.
Soon after Elizabeth came to the throne, she appointed a commission to review the liturgy as established by Edward. The alterations made in it, were rather in favour of the Papists than the Puritans, by many of whom it was viewed as more objectionable than the old Service-book. It was, however, presented to parliament, and adopted as the national form of religion, by “ The Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer and Service in the Church, &c.” The same parliament passed an act vesting the entire ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the crown, and empowering the queen“ with the advice of her commissioners or metropolitan, to ordain and publish such further ceremonies and rites as may be for the advancement of God's glory and edifying his Church, and the reverence of Christ's holy mysteries and sacraments."
The act of uniformity was the source of great mischief to the Church. Many conscientious ministers and others could not conform to its requirements, believing them to be opposed to the doctrines and precepts of the Bible. The rigorous enforcement of the act, while it punished the bodies of men, and wasted their estates, did not convince their minds; but rather strengthened their opposition, and alienated their affections from the Church.
In the doctrinal views of the two parties, the Conformists and the Puritans, there was little avowed difference. The uneasiness arose chiefly from a conscientious objection to the assumptions of the bishops, the introduction of numerous unscriptural offices and titles in the churchấthe laxity of her discipline—the prohibition of extemporaneous prayer-the numerous festivals—the use of organs and other instruments of music in time of worshipof the sign of the cross in the ceremony of baptism-kneeling at the ceremony of the supper--bowing at the name of Jesus and on entering or leaving their places of worship-to the ring in marriage, as well as parts of the words spoken during the rite ; and to the use of the surplice and other vestments by the priests
during Divine service. Such were the principal grounds of difference in the commencement of the dispute; and though the Conformists affected to consider them non-essential, yet they insisted on them with a pertinacity, which increased the opposition and widened the breach, until at length it produced an entire separation, from which have sprung the various classes of dissenters.
That the Puritans were conscientious in their objections to the established religion, will not be questioned by such as are acquainted with the piety of their lives, and the patience and fortitude with which they endured persecution for their religious opinions. Connected with these, was a steadfast resistance to the assumed power of the crown, as visible head of the Church, to prescribe to, and control, the conscience of the subject, in things not essential. Against this they manfully contended while the reins of government were in the hands of their opponents. But when the revolution of civil affairs placed them in possession of the power, they too soon forgot the principles of rational and Christian liberty, for which they had formerly struggled, and exercised on others, the oppression and cruelty which they had so much condemned in their own case,
Contending for their religious liberty, naturally had the effect to make them more jealous of their civil rights; and hence, during the subsequent reign, we find them standing forth, as staunch opposers of the encroachments of the crown.
That they were instruments in the hand of Providence, for carrying forward the reformation from the errors and superstitions by which Christianity had been overlaid, cannot be doubted; yet as this was a gradual work, accomplished by slow degrees, the corruptions not being all discovered at once, but progressively, according to the faithfulness of those engaged in the work ; so others rose up and separated from them, who carried the reform. ation still further.
The first of these was the society of Brownists, who contended that the Church of England was not a true church, because of the Popish corruptions which she retained and enforced, and her persecution for the sake of religion—that the power of church government was in the members—that the ministry was not subject to human selection and ordination, but that any brother who felt engaged, might preach or exhort, and that prayer was not to be limited to prescribed forms. Their mode of discipline was congregational, every society being distinct and independent of the others; holding intercourse and communion, however, as brethren and professors of a common faith. The severe persecutions which they experienced from the government, induced many of this persuasion to fly to the continent, where they met
with little better treatment. They appear to have been a zealous and sincere people, living with strictness and regularity, and preaching with much fervour and energy.
The spirit of inquiry was now abroad, and increasing in vigour and activity. Instead of receiving opinions on the authority of church canons or dignitaries, there was a growing disposition to bring them to the test of revealed truth. Many which had long been implicitly adopted, and transmitted from one generation to another, were now called in question and warmly debated. As early as 1617, John Selden published his History of Tithes, in which he contends that they are of human, not Divine appointment. It was not to be supposed that those whose worldly interests were affected by such an opinion, would suffer his book to pass without severe animadversion; and as a readier mode of counteracting its effects than the resort to argument, the author was summoned before the High Court of Commissions; and, after various threats, compelled to recant his sentiments.
Another class of dissenters, which took its rise about this time, was the society of Independents, which grew out of the Brown. its. Its name is derived from the system of church government, in which each congregation formed a distinct body, regulating its own affairs, judging of the fitness of persons applying for membership, and of the propriety of expelling such as walked disorderly, independently of all others. Their doctrines agreed in the main with those of the other dissenters. During the times of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, they were distinguished by their attachment to toleration, which the Presbyterians denounced as
an hideous monster, the great Diana of the Independents. They were not, however, constant to their own principles ; for, when they subsequently acquired the power, they exercised considerable severity toward both Friends and Baptists. They received the patronage and support of Oliver Cromwell
, and are often mentioned in connexion with the history of Friends.
At a very early period of the Reformation, the subject of water baptism appears to have attracted the serious attention of pious men, and their researches into it, led some of them to differ from the generally received opinions respecting it.
From Fuller's Church History it appears Wickliffe held “ that wise men leave that as impertinent, which is not plainly expressed in Scripture—that those are foolish and presumptuous, who affirm that infants are not saved if they die without baptism; and that baptism doth not confer [grace], but only signify grace which was given before. He also denied that all sins are abolished in baptism; asserted, that children may be saved without baptism, and that the baptism of water profiteth not, without the baptism of the Spirit."