English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640

English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640

English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640

English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640

Excerpt

To suggest that English presbyterianism had a continuing history in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is to challenge the standard narrative of the period. From their first appearance in the 1570s, presbyterians emerged as leaders of a puritan movement for further reformation of the Elizabethan religious settlement. They posed a threat to its episcopally organized hierarchy by insisting on a model of government based on the equality of ministers and the inclusion of lay elders in the oversight of the Church. But when the crown suppressed the movement in 1592 by arresting its leaders and depriving them of their ministry, English presbyterianism appeared to be a dead letter. Thomas Rogers, a chaplain to Archbishop Bancroft, gloated that they had “so battered the new [presbyterian] discipline as hitherto they could never, nor hereafter shall ever fortify and repair the decays thereof?” Modern historians concurred. According to R. G. Usher, “[A]fter the arrests of 1590 and the trials in the Star Chamber in 1592, the whole movement was tacitly abandoned by all concerned,” and “there was even no continuity reaching from one to the other, from the ‘Presbyterians’ of Elizabeth to the ‘Presbyterians’ of the Civil War.” The sudden resurgence of English presbyterians in the frontline of the English Civil War has instead been explained by political expediency and Scottish influence.

The fate of presbyterianism makes sense in light of revisionist accounts of puritanism, which disabused readers of the view that it was a precursor to modernity. As chief agitators against Charles I and William Laud, puritans were previously considered champions of liberty in explaining the rise of parliamentary sovereignty and religious toleration. It has been fifty years since Patrick Collinson complicated that picture. Puritanism, he argued, was indeed initially organized as a movement led by presbyterians. However, it was also compatible with episcopacy so long as bishops remained committed to upholding a reformed protestant preaching ministry. Nicholas Tyacke’s classic . . .

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