The Magisterial Reformation and Separatists in England
In 1534, King Henry VIII’s dynastic aspirations for the house of Tudor thrust England into the midst of the Reformation with one of the most infamous matrimonial debacles of all time. Henry’s father, Henry VII of England, received a papal dispensation from Pope Julius II in order to salvage an arranged marriage between Catherine of Aragon and his son, Arthur, who died four months after the marriage. The papal dispensation granted Henry VIII, now heir to the English throne, permission to marry his brother’s widow, which he did as soon as he was of age. Henry VII was relieved that his actions had ensured the Tudor dynasty on the throne of England, and, as an added bonus, had rescued his foreign policy, which hinged on friendship with Spain. One problem that Henry could not have foreseen, however, was that Catherine would bear no male heir for his son.
After sixteen years of marriage, Mary Tudor was the only heir who survived. Henry VIII began the process of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he might marry again and produce a male heir for the throne of England and avoid plunging England into another war of succession. Consequently, Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine on the basis that his marriage to her under the auspices of the dispensation granted by Pope Julius II had all along been erroneous. To Henry’s great surprise, Clement refused to honor his petition for fear that he would estrange the nephew of Catherine, Emperor Charles V, who had recently sacked Rome.
All of this political jockeying was not uncommon to the landscape of the middle ages. What was uncommon about this situation, as Bainton explains, is that religion was threatening to seriously contravene politics by insisting in this case that, “As a sacrament of the Church, marriage was subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” However, because kings had to satisfy a civic expectation of succession by producing heirs, “royal marriages were affairs of the state.” This constituted a power struggle of epic proportions, and Clement seemed bent on upping the ante by declaring that Henry was going to be excommunicated if he somehow got around the matter and married again anyway without the approval of Rome.
Henry married anyway. However, prior to his decision to divorce Catherine, he consulted Thomas Cranmer, who he had elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, and secured proof through Cranmer from the most prestigious universities in the west, including those in Italy, that his marriage with Catherine had indeed been invalid. With backing from the English court and the English Church in 1533, Henry’s union with Catherine was annulled and he married Anne Boleyn. Then, in 1534, Henry formally broke with the Roman church when he demanded that Parliament pass a series of laws alienating the church in Rome. Among these laws, Parliament denied contributions to Rome, renounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and declared the king “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Additionally, Parliament declared that any who disagreed with the king would be guilty of treason; in effect, the decrees of the king would become the teachings of the church. Henry had successfully and officially instituted the national Church of England, the Ecclesia Anglicana.
After Henry VIII’s death in 1547, his only son, Edward VI became the king of England. Edward continued his father’s policies, and consolidated the religious power Henry had begun amassing. McGrath calls this restructuring of the church a “top-down” imposition upon the entire English church that was difficult at times because of the collaborative effort that was taking place among the king’s advisors, as he was only nine years old when he assumed the throne. England’s Protestant reformation would then receive a monumental contribution through the work of Cranmer, who was given a wide berth under the regency of Somerset, in the publication of the Book of Common Prayer, the decidedly Protestant liturgy. This publication became the lasting testament to the theological reform that had taken place in the Church of England. However, it should be noted that this was a theological reform that came from the political authority of the king of England.
Edwards’ death at the age of fifteen, in 1553, was untimely for the Protestant movement that sought to bring about ubiquitous national change. Edward’s half-sister, Mary, took the throne with the vengeance of a woman scorned. It would be speculative to say that the reversal of her father’s Protestant decrees were based in personal retribution, but the vitriolic pursuit of Protestant blood that her regime enacted makes the speculation believable. The one certain thing about the reign of the bloody queen that does remain is the fact that her realigning of England back to Catholicism was not seen as a theologically motivated campaign. According to McGrath, Mary’s execution of Cranmer and others at Oxford was received as the power play of a foreign religion that was being imposed by foreign influence on a queen with Spanish sympathies; Cranmer and the others were received by the public as martyred English patriots.
Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth sought to heal the wounds inflicted by Mary, and wrested control of the national church back away from Rome; all the while, Marian exiles who fled to Geneva during persecution returned home fueled by different ideas from the Reformed movement. Elizabeth restored the Act of Uniformity, but softened her father’s language as supreme head of the church to “Supreme Governor” so as to not upset the delicate balance of religious sensibilities she was trying to impose. Elizabeth set about trying to establish a religious life for the English Church that was uniform. She wanted to create a via media that could right the religious oscillations that had rocked the English Church. Her efforts resulted in the enduring vision of the Anglican Church: a church whose cardinal beliefs and practices were Protestant, but whose ecclesiastical polity and customs harkened back to England’s pre-Reformation traditions. This, of course, gave rise to heated conflicts between puritanical and radical groups, neither of which was pleased with what they viewed to be Elizabeth’s apathetic approach. Her resolution was a decidedly political one; designed not to settle theological or doctrinal uncertainty, but to bring civic unity.
This state of magisterially imposed religious homogeny was normative throughout Elizabeth’s reign. It was imposed for the same reasons her father had broken from Rome, political expediency. Bainton reports that, “The queen herself was not interested in doctrinal differences.” James Fulton Maclear in an exploration of the origins of the Free Church movement explains the religious climate at the twilight of Elizabeth’s reign thusly:
“At the beginning of the seventeenth century the medieval ideal of one church enjoining uniformity upon the nation through a close partnership with a confessing state still went largely unchallenged in England. The Reformation had introduced changes, but the state had seized supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs and it chose to maintain uniformity for political purposes.”
This Parliament enabled, magisterial dictation of religious practice seemed unassailable to some, and was the basis of Separatist rumblings among Puritans that had begun in the reign of Mary Tudor and was proving true at the turn of the century less than a generation later.
By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the puritanical sect that had arisen in England was primed and hoping for a radical religious upheaval that would swing the pendulum of magisterial reform decidedly in the direction of Protestantism. When it was revealed that Elizabeth had named James VI of Scotland (soon to be James I of England) as her successor, there were factions within the Anglican Church, who all loosely fit under the banner of the Puritans, which began to mobilize immediately in order to petition James I to enact the same kind of Reformed church that he had established in Scotland. It is important to note, at this point, that he Puritan agenda was not to necessarily have magisterial political regulation lifted, only to have the force of such regulation behind their personal cause instead.
The Puritans would be bitterly disappointed to find, however, that the Reformed Presbyterian church that was established in Scotland was something that James I looked forward to relieving himself of once in England. He, in fact, looked forward to possessing the kind of freedom he felt that the monarchy deserved once he was in England. Consequently, James’ private ambitions were to arrive in England and strengthen the episcopacy so that his own power might increase as well. Nonetheless, James was met on the road to London by a Puritan dispatch armed with the “Millenary Petition,” a document of Puritan grievances against the Anglican Church signed by more than one thousand ministers. James, though, had no sympathies for these grievances; he had neither a doctrinal proclivity to assent nor a personally pleasing political reason to acquiesce.
In actuality, what James did was the opposite; he fought the Puritans at every turn, in the church and Parliament, because he viewed their advances through the lens of his experiences with Presbyterians in Scotland. He thought it likely that the Puritans, like the Calvinistic revolutionaries of the republic of Geneva, were out to overthrow him, which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, James found himself maneuvering around the Puritans and Anglicans within the episcopacy and Parliament only to develop his own policies that, “managed to contain Puritanism’s agendas without leading to any major alterations to the practices or beliefs of the established church.” He paid lip service to the Puritans, but enacted change that amounted to little in their eyes. The Puritan hope of a royal decree that would rule in favor of their desired Protestant reforms were beginning to look increasingly bleak, and some among them started to look for other options.
A fundamental belief of the Puritans, that the “magistrate had a religious duty to punish heresy, idolatry, and apostasy” through persecution, endured through the English civil war. Interestingly, this point of political activism is where the Separatists began to come out from among the Puritans. One of the hallmarks of the early Free Church movement was correlative to the Separatist notion of religious toleration. Coffey explains the resulting shift in political agenda and theological inquiry thusly:
“But there were a minority of radical puritans who broke decisively with the mainstream puritan view and maintained that religious toleration should be extended to all who did not endanger the civil peace and safety of the commonwealth. This view first emerged among the godly in the reign of James I, and its earliest proponents were General (or Arminian) Baptists”
These individuals had abandoned the hope of royal decree ever resulting in the kind of religious freedom they hoped would occur. It had finally become clear in their minds that religious liberty could not be achieved within the bounds of a system that sought to maintain some form of church-state, theocratic or otherwise. This turning point, early in seventeenth century during the rule of James I, is precisely what sent key players among the Separatist camp across the paths of Radical Reformers in the Netherlands. Their views had brought them into direct conflict with James’ “divine right of kings,” and so they fled imminent persecution into Amsterdam under the leadership of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.
 McGrath points out that Henry’s attempt at a smooth transition for power as the catalyst for the English reformation is preferable to the notion that there was popular dislike of the late medieval church or any substantial academic interest in Lutheranism, see Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 109. It is a point corroborated by González and Bainton; see also Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol. 1, (San Francisco: Harper, 1984), 70-1; and see also Roland N. Bainton, Christianity, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 272.
 Bainton, Christianity, 272.
 McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 109.
 González, The Story of Christianity, 73.
 Bainton goes on to explain that here the king did not assume the role of a priest but had irrevocably tied nationalism to the English reformation. Bainton, Christianity, 273-75.
 McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 115.
 Ibid., 117.
 Ibid., 119.
 Ibid., 122-23.
 Bainton, Christianity, 287.
 James Fulton Maclear, “The Birth of the Free Church Tradition.” Church History, 6 (June 1957): 100.
 McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 123.
 González, The Story of Christianity, 150-1.
 Ibid., 152.
 McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 124-5.
 Ibid., 125.
 John, Coffey, “Puritanism and Liberty Revisited: The Case for Toleration in the English Revolution.” The Historical Journal. 41, (Dec 1998): 962.
 Ibid., 964.