The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty
Part 7 – The Free Church
It is not generally recognised, that there were two very different wings to the Protestant Reformation – the Magisterial Reformers and the Free Church. The history of the Free Church is not very well known. This is because the history of the Reformation has been written by the Magisterial Reformers and the Free Church has always been cast in the role of extremists at best and at worse heretics by the Magisterial historians. Therefore, the Free Church has always suffered from what we call today ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation.’ For example, the Magisterial historians prefer to use the disparaging epithet, ‘Radical Church’ when referring to the Free Church – conjuring up images of cults and sects, with the intention of tarnishing the appeal of the Free Church in the public perception. As a result of this ‘demonization’ the Free Church were always a minority because the Catholics persecuted the Magisterial Reformers and the Magisterial Reformers persecuted the Catholics, but everyone persecuted the Free Church.
The Book of Revelation speaks about the persecution of the Free Church. It speaks about a ‘woman’ that flees into the wilderness to escape the persecution of the dragon. This ‘woman’ was not the Magisterial Church, it was the Free Church. The Free Church has always been God’s Church. It is said in Revelation that God gave His Church ‘eagles wings’ with which she flew into the wilderness:
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days… And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. Rev. 12:6, 14.
It was the Free Church, in the wilderness, nourished there by God, that kept the light burning and the Scriptures safe for hundreds of years, enduring persecution, but always surviving the “fiery darts of the wicked” (Eph. 6:16).
When the Protestant Reformation increased its momentum throughout Europe, the Free Church ‘came out of the wilderness’ seeking to add impetus to the momentum, but they could never join hands with their Magisterial associates, because they felt they would be betraying the very principles, they had been defending for hundreds of years.
The Free Church has never been a united Church. It has always been a conglomeration of disparate groups and movements. The main feature, that distinguishes them, as a separate wing of the Reformation, is that they rejected unions with the state, along with much of the theology, that is necessary to justify such church/state unions. In this respect, they were much like the ancient Donatists, whose motto was ‘what does the church have to do with the state.’ Some of the more prominent Free Church movements were the Waldensians, the Celtic Church, the Anabaptists (precursors to the Baptist Church), the Moravians, the Mennonites, the Amish etc. Latter manifestations of the Free Church tradition include the Methodist Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But for our purposes we need to follow the development of Puritanism.
Most history buffs are familiar with Henry the VIII and his six wives. The Protestant Reformation in England began, because Henry could not procure a son and an heir to the throne. Therefore, he broke with the pope in order to divorce his first wife, and the Church of England was born. But the sacral mentality, reigned in England, just as forcibly as anywhere else. Henry’s successors tried to impose the Church of England, on all the citizens of the realm, in an effort to achieve what every sacralist wants – unity and uniformity, which to their minds leads to social stability.
During this period of English history, there were no fewer than four legislative attempts to impose religious conformity, all four of them called acts of uniformity. One in 1549, one in 1552, one in 1559 and one in 1662. In 1559 it was Elizabeth I, turn to try and force conformity on her subjects. Elizabeth was a sacralist, and England was a sacral place:
In setting her house in order, the queen followed the hierarchical assumptions of her day. All creation was presumed to be a great chain of being, running from the tiniest insect to the Godhead itself, and the universe was seen as an organic whole in which each part played a divinely prescribed role. In politics every element was expected to obey “one head, one governor, one law” in exactly the same way as all parts of the human body obeyed the brain. Encyclopedia Britannica art. UK.
The encyclopedia does not use the word sacral in his description, but its account of English society at this time is totally sacral, even extremely so. However, at this Elizabethan time, there was a large disruptive body of people, called the Puritans in England. The Puritans were largely a movement within the Magisterial Churches, but they had Free Church convictions and goals. They thought that the Church of England was just Catholicism without the pope. They wanted a ‘pure’ church – based on biblical principles. They were members of the Magisterial Churches, but they were concerned that the Reformation had stalled within these churches, and they were agitators for more reform. This is why they were called Puritans, because they wanted ‘pure’ churches – churches that were based solely on biblical principles and practises and not on inherited unbiblical traditions. Because they insisted on further reforms the ‘pure-itans’ found themselves in direct conflict with their own church hierarchies. In addition, they brought upon themselves the wrath of the state, because as far as the state was concerned, religion was to function as a force for unity, thus preserving and enhancing the social order – it was not supposed to function as an arena for different argumentized factions.
The Puritan movement, like most Protestant movements was riven by argumentized factionalism. One such faction was known as the ‘Brownists’ (named after their first leader, Robert Browne). The Brownists differed from their fellow Puritans, in that, they refused to adopt the prevailing Puritan policy, of reforming the Church of England from within. They believed in the separation of church and state. They had re-discovered what the Donatists were famed for:
“What has the emperor to do with the church?”
“What have Christians to do with kings,
or what have bishops to do at court?”
The Brownists were prominent enough to get a mention in William Shakespeare’s play, ‘Twelfth Night’ – where the character Andrew Aquecheek says, “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician.” This Shakespearean swipe at the Brownists, is an indication of the public attitude towards them – they were held in contempt (but according to Shakespeare politicians were even more contemptible).
The contempt with which the Brownists were regarded included persecution. Many of them dying in prison and some of them on the gallows. Therefore, in 1581, Robert Browne led his followers into exile in Holland, where in the city of Middleburg, they established a church on New Testament principles, as they understood them to be.
The most important New Testament principle, by which these people lived was the covenant principle. The covenant principle was an acknowledgement, that Jesus Christ was the head of the Church (not popes, bishops, kings or priests). Therefore, the covenant was a commitment to follow Christ, wherever He led – practice whatever He taught – and accept whatever He revealed. In other words, the covenant principle, was a claim that God’s people, had the right to practise religious liberty, based on the authority of Scripture. The covenant principle was the reason why they chose to live in exile in Holland. It is from this group of persecuted, English Puritans/Brownists, that we get the people who decided to seek religious freedom in America. It is these people who set sail from Holland, on the Mayflower to the New World, and landed at Plymouth Rock, in December 1620. Before they set sail on the Mayflower, they listened to a farewell address from their leader, John Robinson.
John Robinson’s Speech
John Robinson was the leader of the English Puritans in Holland, but he did not join his fellow brethren on the dangerous journey to the New World. Therefore, before the Mayflower sailed away, John Robinson gave them an epic speech. His words are so pertinent and prescient, that they have been reproduced in Ellen White’s book ‘The Great Controversy’ – she too, recognising the import of his advice and instructions. John Robinson gave the departing Puritans, ‘present truth’ for their time:
Brethren we are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no farther than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw;… and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented; for though they were burning lights and shining lights in their time, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received. Remember your church covenant, in which you have agreed to walk in all the ways of the Lord, made or to be made known unto you. Remember your promise and covenant with God and with one another, to receive whatever light and truth shall be made known to you from His written word. But withal, take heed, I beseech you, what you receive for truth, and compare it and weigh it with other scriptures of truth before you accept it; for it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once. Ellen White, The Great Controversy, pp. 292, 293.
In his farewell address, John Robinson, highlights several things that help us to understand the contemporary times, and what motivated the flight across the Atlantic.
- Williams reminds those about to depart that they have made a covenant with God to follow all the truth revealed in His word.
- Because of the great darkness in the past, there will be revealed more light by the study of the Scriptures.
- This progression will not be accomplished by their Protestant brethren, because they have only progressed as far as the original leaders, and then called a halt.
What shines out brightly from this exhortation to follow the Lord, is Robinson’s clear understanding that the Kingdom of God is progressive, always moving forward to its culmination as clearly seen in the latter part of the Book of Revelation. Ellen White also clearly understood this ‘Progressive Principle,’ she called it ‘vital:’
When first constrained to separate from the English Church, the Puritans had joined themselves together by a solemn covenant, as the Lord’s free people, “to walk together in all His ways made known or to be made known to them.” Here was the true spirit of reform, the vital principle of Protestantism. Ellen White, the Great Controversy, p. 292.
So, did the Puritans in the New World live up to these high Protestant principles? Did they carry the banner of reform forward? Did they discover the principles of religious liberty as they studied Scripture? Are they responsible for introducing religious liberty to the New World, into the United States Constitution, and from there to the whole world? No, they are not responsible for any of the progression of God’s Kingdom.
Even though the Puritans left sacral England behind, and were willing to gamble everything for their own personal religious liberty and political freedom, they were not willing to extend the same religious and political rights to others. The sacral mind-set that they despised in England was the same mindset they adopted for themselves in order to justify religious laws and persecution of non-confirming ‘brethren’ in the New World. The Puritans took the Constantinian/ Augustinian/Platonic monstrosity with them and tried to plant it in the new soil of the New World.