The Decline of the Magisterial Tradition and the Rise of the Cromwellian Consensus (Pt. 1)


Note: This is the first in a two-part response. Part two can be found here.

Miles Smith’s fascinating article, “The Promise and Peril of Disestablishment” describes a revealing episode in the transformation of Reformed political theology. Presbyterians, motivated by their antagonism to colonial Anglican establishments, were coaxed by Jeffersonian Deists and Baptists into a political embrace of religious disestablishment. For Smith, this process marked the central episode in turning a heretofore magisterial tradition into what he calls the “new socio-religious category” of “American Evangelicalism.”[1]

Smith does an excellent job outlining the dynamics at play among American Presbyterians during the revolutionary generation, as well as the fundamental disagreement between the Presbyterians’ prudential embrace of disestablishment and the Baptists’ full-throated endorsement of religious freedom.

Smith does not spell out explicitly what constitutes this “new” category of “American Evangelicalism,” but the implication seems to be that “evangelicalism,” or at least its American form, came into existence when the descendants of the magisterial Reformers in the United States endorsed the separation of church and state. Although I would date the origins of evangelical Protestantism to the revivals of the 1730s and I am hesitant to grant “American Evangelicalism” a separate existence from its transatlantic cousins, I wholeheartedly agree that the slow embrace of voluntaryism by almost every Protestant sect in the United States between the Revolution and the 1830s is one of the most significant events in the history of American Protestantism.

At the same time, I am wary of contrasting a previously authoritative magisterial Reformed tradition against a novel, Baptist-inflected voluntaryism, in part because I think the magisterial consensus had begun to break down earlier, especially during the Interregnum in England. Then, it was challenged both by the failure to construct a united church out of the divided Puritan movement and by the theories of Oliver Cromwell and other Congregationalists, who favored state support for religion, but rejected uniformity of practice. In fact, as I will argue later on, there is a fair amount of continuity between the post-magisterial vision of Oliver Cromwell and the attempt by evangelicals in the nineteenth century to construct a Christian nation out of a plurality of denominations.

The Interregnum Crisis of the Magisterial Tradition

After the conclusion of the English Civil War, the tensions between two Puritan emphases began to become apparent: the ideal of the “godly magistracy,” which assumed general uniformity in religious practice, and the tendency towards a “gathered church,” which had encouraged the gathering of the “godly” in separate assemblies. The latter model gained ground during the period when Puritanism had been a subversive undercurrent in the Church of England. Under the repression of Archbishop Laud, the divisions between Puritans were relatively unimportant, but once freed from these restraints, the question of how to govern the Church of England became a vexed issue.[2] Although the Westminster Assembly provided blueprints for an established presbyterian church, functioning classes (presbyteries) only came into existence haphazardly in certain regions of England. Instead, during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, the Church of England devolved into a mishmash of polity and practice, congregationalists and presbyterians coexisting with the remnants of the episcopalian “avant-garde conformists,” and allowing for the growth of the Baptists as well as more radical groups like the Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, and Levellers.[3]

This development owed much to the dint of circumstance and very little to the kind of formal political principles that we associate with the Enlightenment tradition and Baptist political theology. It correlates well with the insight of Benjamin Kaplan that the spread of toleration in early modern Europe occurred not primarily by the inculcation of novel theories, but through much more messy, on-the-ground compromises in particular local contexts.[4] An important example of this was the “connivance” that Evan Haefeli describes in the Dutch context that allowed Reformed magistrates to claim to be upholding religious uniformity while winking at synagogues and Catholic churches disguised as private houses.[5]

At the same time, the chaotic marketplace of religion during the Interregnum did accord with certain facets of Congregational polity and particularly the vision of Oliver Cromwell. The leader of the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War and Lord Protector of England starting in 1653, Cromwell was a Congregationalist. But more than anything else, he affirmed the spiritual unity of all true Christians. Rejecting any pretence at achieving religious uniformity, he affirmed liberty for all except Roman Catholics, and largely ignored Catholic practice as well. As the historian David Hall puts it, “Cromwell’s larger goal was to transform religious factionalism into a new version of unity.”[6] Because true Christians of whatever sect were united in the Spirit, their divisions ought to be inconsequential. Cromwell took this idea so far as to think that if he could only ensure that all members of Parliament were converted Christians, he would guarantee political harmony. He experimented with making election to Parliament dependent on church nomination—an approved congregation would vouch for the religious experience of a candidate, on which basis he would be chosen by Cromwell and his allies.[7] Needless to say, this concept did not have legs: the “Parliament of the Saints” dissolved in shambles after a few months, predictably divided over religion—especially the fate of tithes (long redirected from their original purpose for ministerial support into a form of privately held property) and advowsons, the right of a patron to present a nominee for a church living.[8]

In the last weeks of Cromwell’s life, a group of Congregational leaders gathered at the Savoy Palace to formalize their confessional basis. The Savoy Declaration (1658), a version of the Westminster Confession of Faith adapted to Independency, offers a starkly different vision of church-state ties than the original document. In chapter 23, the WCF commits the Christian magistrate, among other things, to the suppression of blasphemy and heresy and the maintenance of proper worship, discipline, “unity and peace” in the church. In contrast, the Savoy Declaration affirms the general duty of magistrates to “encourage, promote, and protect the professors and profession of the gospel,” as well as to rule in “due subserviency to the interest of Christ in the world” and to prevent the propagation of “blasphemy and errors.” But it combines this with a quite broad understanding of the diversity to be tolerated and even affirmed within the Christian body: “yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them; there is no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty.”[9]

As David Weir puts it, the document “reflects a critical shift in the thinking of Reformed confessional literature concerning the magistracy and the established state church.” It accepts the legitimacy of a plurality of churches with differing beliefs, and makes clear that as long as a church upholds the fundamentals of the gospel, it ought to be left unmolested. Weir concludes: “We therefore see articulated in a confessional document the beginning of the end of the state church system in the Anglo-American world, and the seeds of the voluntary denominational system of modern times.”[10]

Although the Savoy Declaration did not bind New England Congregationalists, synods in Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted its provisions to grant rights to orthodox churches outside of the Standing Order, in 1679–80 and 1708 respectively.[11] Meanwhile, the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, followed by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, created the so-called “Great Ejection” of nonconforming English ministers from their benefices. Although Dissenting leaders like Richard Baxter worked with sympathetic Latitudinarian bishops to create schemes for “comprehension”—adjusting the formularies of the Church of England so that they could be conscientiously accepted by presbyterians—nothing came of their efforts.[12] Instead, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and Mary rewarded orthodox Protestant Dissenters (among the least likely subjects to sympathize with the Catholic king in exile) with toleration. Although they technically enjoyed limited political rights under this framework, English Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists could register their chapels, worship freely, and—if they were willing to become “occasional conformists” by taking Communion once a year in the established church—even hold political office.[13] More importantly, the Glorious Revolution marked the end of any pretence that England enjoyed religious uniformity, and by reintroducing presbyterian government to Scotland, created the strange situation in which the monarch was an episcopalian when in England and a presbyterian when in Scotland.

During the eighteenth century, Reformed Christians in America, both Congregational and Presbyterian, enjoyed extensive ties to their nonconformist brethren in England. This was, of course, in addition to their many contacts with members of the established Church of Scotland, and as evangelicalism grew in the Church of England, also to sympathetic Anglican evangelicals. The New England colonies, in particular, benefitted from the mediation of the Dissenting Deputies, the quasi-official interest group that lobbied Parliament on behalf of the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.[14] Transatlantic communication networks with English Dissenters were also important vectors for the transmission of revival around the British Atlantic world in the 1730s and 1740s.[15]

Although there is a certain degree of irony in the idea that colonies with state church traditions were represented in England by their Dissenting brethren, the situation in New England was more complex than is often admitted. The Congregationalists shared their monopoly on government aid from quite early. Starting in 1727 both Massachusetts and Connecticut agreed to direct Anglicans’ taxes towards the support of their own ministers. Baptists and Quakers would not agree to any religious taxation, so they were instead exempted from the requirement soon afterwards.[16] Besides, there was no rule obliging a town to direct its taxes to the Congregational church. Before the exemption for conscientious dissenters passed in 1727, Baptist-dominated Swansea even briefly enjoyed a Baptist establishment.[17] After independence, the new constitutions passed by Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 1780s both provided for local communities to select a “public protestant teacher” of any denomination to receive state support, but also exempted members of other churches from the requirement (Connecticut continued to operate under its colonial charter until 1818).[18]

My point here has been simply to suggest that the magisterial tradition was already in crisis well before the American Revolution, starting especially with the English Civil War, the rule of Oliver Cromwell, and the Savoy Declaration. While the religious chaos of the Interregnum initially led to a renewed Restoration establishment, the pluralistic genie could not be returned to its bottle. In the next installment, I will remain in the American context, arguing that there was an important continuity between the approach favored by Cromwell and the Congregationalists during the Interregnum, and that pursued by the Reformed as well as other evangelicals in the early republic and Antebellum period.


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“Presbyterians” and the Making of an Informal Establishment (Pt. 2)

So far, I have worked to argue that the English Reformed tradition had already become considerably less magisterial by the mid-seventeenth century. Next, I want to suggest that Cromwell’s move towards supporting a kind of multiple establishment had echoes in the early republic, first in the abortive attempts to create shared establishments that would support churches of various denominations, as was attempted by Jefferson’s enemies in Virginia, then by the creation of an informal evangelical establishment in which Presbyterians and Congregationalists played the central role.

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