Those Independents

March 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Purkiss readings for our next session (3/30) may have led you to wonder what she means when she writes of the Independents.

Richard Baxter, Independent Preacher

How were they distinct from Presbyterians, the Parliament-approved brand of Protestant? By the way, by 1646, Presbyterianism was even more than approved; a series of Parliamentary ordinances made it the official religion of England.

Here’s a quick answer. The Independents began to take shape during the 1643 Westminster Assembly, the Parliamentary-sponsored conference whose aim was to thrash out what English protestantism should look like. Independents believed that preachers ought to be free to teach their congregations as they saw fit, individual congregations should be allowed to manage their own affairs, and laypeople had every right to preach if they wanted to–beliefs that were far too radical for the Presbyterian favorers.  (The Independents were also known as Congregationalists.) When Presbyterians in Parliament tried to ban preachers who didn’t meet their specifications, the Independents, who disliked any form of church control, got het up.

If you needed an example to prove that what was religious in the 17th century was also inescapably political, you couldn’t do better than point to the Independents. As you’ll learn more about in the next week or so, Independent preachers were active in Cromwell’s New Model Army, and the beliefs they promoted–greater tolerance for all Protestant sects, a more democratic and popular type of government than the one Parliament was considering–attracted many among the common ranks.

Eventually, the New Model would out-maneuver Parliament–which by that time was negotiating to restore Charles to some kind of power–by kidnapping the king and purging Parliament of Presbyterians and anyone else who wouldn’t carry out their plan. (By the way, the New Model offered Charles great terms, but, as ever, he refused to compromise. Afraid that Presbyterians and Anglicans were going to join forces that would put paid to religious tolerance and a more democratic state government, they decided to put both groups out of business by doing away with the monarchy altogether. Contrary to received wisdom, it was really the New Model, not the Long Parliament, that tried Charles, found him guilty of treason, and executed him. The Commonwealth under Cromwell was essentially a military dictatorship (Cromwell being the commander of the army), the idea being that such a thing was necessary until Englishmen got used to the idea of republicanism. Which sounds eerily like the Bush administration’s logic for our military presence in Iraq.

If you’re thinking that Cromwell and the Independents were “on the same page”–a reasonable enough assumption, given that Cromwell promoted religious tolerance (and made it legal for Jews to live in England)–they weren’t, in one important way: politically, the Independents were far too radical for Cromwell’s plans for the country. But let’s save that tale for later…

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