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indeed, are the Church of England, and all the other reformed churches, viewed in relation to the Church of Rome, to which they were all at one time subject, but nonconformists,-seceders,--separatists,—dissenters; a fact which ought to make all these communities very cautious how they bring the odious charge of schism against those who conscientiously and peaceably retire from their communion.
The separation of Dissenters from the Church of England is precisely on the same general ground as that taken by the Church of England in seceding from Rome -a conscientious regard to truth, or at any rate to what is apprehended to be such. The errors which in the two cases cause the separation, it is admitted are vastly disproportionate as to magnitude and importance; but still the separation itself is in each case produced by a conviction that there is something erroneous, something contrary to the word of God, in the system from which the secession takes place. Nor is it enough to justify the secession in one case and to condemn in the other, to alledge that the errors of the Church of Rome are of such magnitude as not only to warrant but to demand a separation, while those of the Church of England, even by the admission of dissenters, are of far less consequence, inasmuch as they do not extend to fundamental doctrines. It must be left to every one's conscience to determine what measure of error in any given system is sufficient to demand his separation from it, No one man, nor any set of men, can determine this matter for another.
When the Reformation was effected in this country by the passions and authority of HENRY VIII., which in fact was still a modified Papacy with a king instead of a pope at its head, the most stringent laws were passed to enforce conformity in doctrine, sacraments, and polity to the state-religion. There were some of his subjects who went farther than Henry in their views of reformation, and who wished to throw off a great deal more of Popery than he was prepared to relinquish. The publication of Tindal's and Coverdale's translation of the Scriptures, which took place at this time, greatly promoted the work of reformation, which, however, received a powerful check by the passing of the terrible and bloody act of “The Six Articles.” By this law the doctrines of the real presence, the communion in one kind, the perpetual obligation of vows of chastity, the utility of private masses, the celibacy of the clergy, and the necessity of auricular confession, were established by royal authority, and all who spoke against transubstantiation were to be burnt as heretics. No wonder that after the publication of the Scriptures in the vernacular language, many refused to conform to Henry's decrees, and suffered martyrdom rather than profess such doctrines as these, among whom were Bilney, Byfield, Freeth, and Dr. Robert Barnes, all men of eminent piety and distinguished zeal in the cause of the Reformation. Here were the first nonconformists after the nation had thrown off the yoke of Rome, and here its proto-martyrs.
On the accession of EDWARD VI. the work of Reformation, under the advice and direction of Cranmer, and the Duke of Somerset, made rapid progress, and a mass of superstition was removed from the English Church, an event which was hailed with delight by the nonconformists, of whom there were then
But even this measure of reform could not satisfy men who were anxious to bring all things into agreement with the New Testament, and who saw many things yet remaining which were in opposition to that standard, and savoured strongly of Popery.
In the year 1552, forty-two articles of religion were agreed upon by the Convocation, to which subscription was required of all persons who should officiate at the altars of the Establishment, or enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. This was the commencement of subscription to articles of faith as the door of entrance to the pulpit. Against some of the things thus enjoyed by authority, many divines of distinguished learning and piety raised a protesting voice. They excepted, for instance, against the clerical vestments, especially the use of the surplice; kneeling at the Lord's supper, as countenancing the Popish notion of adoring the host; the use of godfathers and the sponsorial service in baptism; the superstitious observance of Lent; the use of the sign of the cross in baptism ; the oath of canonical obedience; pluralities and non-residence; with other matters of a similar nature. To these things they could not and did not conform; and therefore became, on such points, zealous nonconformists. The disputes about these subjects were introduced to the pulpit, and carried on with great warmth, one party insisting on the necessity of absolute and universal conformity, the other pleading for liberty and latitude in reference to these lesser matters.
Edward, though so young, was not inattentive to the controversy, and was set upon removing the ground of it, by putting aside many of the usages against which exception had been taken ; and there is little doubt that Cranmer, to a certain extent, coincided with his views. Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer, the two celebrated divines brought over by Edward from the Continent to carry on the work of the Reformation by acting as Professors of Divinity in the Universities, were both of them, in some things, nonconformists.
“ When I was at Oxford,” said Martyr, “I could never use those white garments in the choir, and I am satisfied with what I did.” He called them relics of Popery. Nor could Bucer ever be prevailed upon to use the surplice ; and when asked why he did not wear the square cap, replied, “Because my head is not square.” Hooper, appointed to the see of Gloucester, and afterwards burnt there in the reign of Mary, refused for a long time to submit to consecration, because he would not wear the prelatical vestments required by law. Latimer, Coverdale, Rowland Taylor, John Rogers, John Bradford, who subsequently were distinguished soldiers in “the noble
army of martyrs,” were all in these matters zealous nonconformists. At length, so continued, and so strong, was the resistance to these impositions, that it was wisely thought expedient to leave it as a matter of indifference, to be settled by a man's own taste and conscience.
As dissatisfaction with many things contained in the Book of Common Prayer continued to increase, and it was by many wholly or partially disused, alarm was taken by the heads of the Church, and a royal commission was issued to repress nonconformity by punishing those who practised it, and at the same time to visit with the penalties of the law the “anabaptists” as they were called. Persecution thus found its
into the kingdom under the reign of the pious and gentle Edward. On the trial of a member of an obscure sect of separatists in the county of Kent, their leader thus addressed Cranmer in open court: Well, reverend sir, pass tence you please upon us, but that you may not say you were not forewarned, I testify that your own turn will be next.” We do not believe that this was inspired prophecy; yet how soon was it fulfilled. A little while after this, Edward died, the prisoners were liberated, and Cranmer himself brought to the stake. This venerable, but imperfect man, fell a victim to that severe intolerance which he himself had manifested, and having burnt others for heresy, expired in the flames for the same alledged offence.
The early death of that scarcely-full-blown rose of monarchy, EDWARD VI., is one of those deep mysteries of Providence which man's finite reason attempts, in vain, to penetrate. What a work of reformation was stopped-what a reign of darkness, of terror, and of blood was introduced by that event. What the Church of England would have become, and what would have been the necessity for nonconformity, had he lived, it is impossible to conjecture; though when we consider the strength of his intellect, the kindness of his heart, and the liberality of his sentiments, we are ready to imagine things would have been widely different from what they became under his lordly sister Elizabeth.
The reign of Mary was a dark night of Protestant history, illumined only by the lurid glare of the flames of Smithfield. There were a few nonconformists then, and it is a deep and indelible disgrace to the national clergy that there were no more. The few that existed were illustrious ones, and much have they added to the glory of our English martyrology. As Popery was now the state-religion, all the ministers and members of the Church of England who held fast their Protestanism, were thrown into the ranks of nonconformity. It is true they did not assume the name, and did not go the lengths of those who had hitherto been so called,
but dissenters they were. Was nonconformity their shame and their infamy? Do they deserve to be reproached