The English Reformation

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

The fundamental cause of the English Reformation has long been a matter of dispute. One school of historians would have us believe that its origin may be traced to the desire of King Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Others will tell us that the English Reformation was but a part of a parallel movement in Germany and Switzerland. Again, there are historians who find its origins in the political changes of the day.

For a long time there had been a spirit of unrest both in Church and State. Preaching had declined to such an extent that it is hardly possible to name a preacher of the first magnitude from the time that the last remnants of the Celtic Church were absorbed by Rome in the twelfth century until the appearance of John Wyclif, (1320-1384), and John Colet, (1466-1519). The Angles and Saxons who invaded England and gradually overcame the Celts, became Christians in time, but we hear of few great preachers among them. This decline in preaching had its usual result. Spiritual lethargy set in. The missionaries who came from Rome were excellent organizers and they built up a powerful outward ecclesiastical order, but where do we find among them such evangelical preachers as Ninian, Comgall the Great, Columbanus and Columba?

Gradually the Church lost her influence over the people, and the presence of a religious organization in the British Isles, controlled by a distant foreign center, began to be irksome. In spite of the successive invasions of the Teutonic Angles, Saxons and Vikings, much Celtic remained in the British Isles. The Celts are a clannish people, and they looked upon the Church of Rome as a foreign church. The Angles, Saxons and Vikings who had conquered the Celts yielded to Latin Christianity, but even they were never entirely happy while under the jurisdiction of the pope.

As early as the reign of Henry VII, (1485-1509), we find a growing opposition to the rule of the Church over the State. During the first twenty years of the reign of Henry VIII, (1509-1547), Cardinal Wolsey’s great influence held this spirit in check, but when Wolsey was deprived of his office in 1529, men began to declare openly that the Church had no right to dominate the State.

The preaching of the Lollards did much to prepare the way for the Reformation in Britain. They were not eminent preachers, but plain men who went among the people testifying against the abuses of their day. John Wyclif had organized a company of “poor preachers” whose methods recall those of the men trained by Ninian, Columba and the other great Celtic missionaries. These men, who came to be known as Lollards, went on extended preaching tours. They testified against a Church that held great tracts of land, that collected tithes of the people, that charged a fee for baptizing the children of the poor and for burying the dead. They carried Wyclif’s translation of the Bible, or portions of it, and directed the attention of men to the Scriptures, which they declared were the infallible Word of God, and the sole source of Christian doctrine and living. They condemned celibacy, transubstantiation, prayers to the saints and the blessing of such things as altars, bells, vestments and crucifixes. They declared that auricular confession is not necessary to salvation, and that the Church has no right to interfere in matters that belong rightfully to the civil government. The Lollard movement became so widespread that at one time it was declared that one man out of every two was a Lollard. Every effort was made to suppress them, but their influence in the pre-Reformation age was considerable.

The English Bible was also a powerful influence. The invention of printing made it possible to place the Tyndale and the Coverdale Bible in the hands of the people, and these Bibles contained footnotes and other explanatory matter that set forth the teachings of the reformers. The writings of Luther and his associates were circulated widely, read and discussed, and all efforts to suppress them failed. Books such as Thomas More’s Utopia, and the writings of Erasmus aroused interest everywhere. While More remained a Roman Catholic, yet his book defended religious toleration.

The expository sermons of John Colet, (1466-1519), on the Pauline Epistles, delivered at Oxford and at St. Paul’s Cross attracted many hearers. Colet had little sympathy with some of the teachings and practices of the Roman Church, and he urged men to return to the simplicity of Early Christianity. The sermons of Prior Barnes, of the Austin Friars, deserve mention; as well as the influence of groups of Lutherans at Oxford and particularly at Cambridge.

Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, came to the throne at the age of 18. During the twenty years of Cardinal Wolsey’s supremacy Henry was a loyal Roman Catholic. In 1521 he wrote a Latin treatise against Luther and the reformers, and for this the pope conferred upon him the title “Defender of the Faith.” While the first of Henry’s three divorces did not bring about the English Reformation, yet it led to a break between Henry and the pope. Henry had married the widow of his deceased brother. She was Catherine of Aragon, and a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Henry desired to divorce Catherine, since he had fallen in love with one of her retainers, Anne Boleyn. He sent various deputations to Rome, but the pope caused him to wait several years for his decision. Meanwhile Henry grew impatient, and in 1533 he obtained from Thomas Cranmer, the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury, a declaration that his marriage to Catherine was invalid. Henry immediately married Anne Boleyn, only to behead her three years later. He married Jane Seymour who died within a year of their marriage. He divorced his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, beheaded his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and only his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, survived him as his lawful wife.

In 1532-1534, a series of acts of Parliament cut off the revenues formerly paid to Rome. In 1533 all appeals to the pope were forbidden. In 1535 Henry had himself declared supreme head of the Church, and he declared the pope to be merely the bishop of Rome, and with no jurisdiction in Britain. Henry published his Six Articles in 1539. They are all thoroughly Roman Catholic, and the denial of transubstantiation was declared to be heresy, and the penalty was death…These various acts made the Church of England of the years 1532-39 a national church, independent of Rome, but Roman Catholic in all respects except the recognition of the pope’s authority. When Sir Thomas More and John Fisher refused to accept Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church, Henry executed them, although Sir Thomas was one of his best friends. Henry executed several of his relatives, fearing that they might become claimants to the throne. Between 1536 and 1540 he suppressed the monasteries. It is said that some 1300 of them were overthrown. These religious communities had become wealthy and powerful, and they refused to accept Henry as supreme head of the Church. The king coveted their wealth, and by suppressing the monasteries, hanging and quartering the abbots who refused to surrender, turning the monks out to beg or starve, and plundering the buildings of their vessels of gold and silver, Henry was able to gain control of these institutions. Their lands were either sold or else conveyed to the king’s favorites. In many cases the churches and the conventual buildings were burned or else blown up with gunpowder, and the stones sold for building materials. As every summer tourist knows, these churches often rivalled the great cathedrals in size. Glastonbury Abbey, for example, was 594 feet in length, including the retrochapel behind the high altar, and to it were attached 400 monks and 500 farm laborers and other dependents. The sacking of these great churches provided Henry VIII with the money that he needed to pay his retainers and to bribe the dignitaries of Church and State when his frequent matrimonial difficulties made this necessary. Henry VIII died in 1547, thoroughly hated both by Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Edward VI, who reigned from 1547 to 1553, was but ten years old when his father died. Edward was influenced, not always willingly, by his uncle, Edward Seymour, who had been named Protector Somerset. This Somerset was a scheming politician with a lust for power, and he was shrewd enough to see that his own selfish interests could best be served by becoming a champion of the Protestant cause. Somerset has sometimes been described as a noble Christian, but his cruel murder of his own brother, Thomas Seymour, who had sought to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne, is but one of a number of similar outrages. Somerset was the chief power behind the throne of the sickly lad, Edward VI, until the powerful Duke of Warwick overthrew and beheaded the Protector. Somerset posed as a devout Christian, and as a great friend of the reformers; and there is no doubt that in his selfish way he did much that helped the cause of the Protestants.

During the reign of Edward VI, two important books were published. . . . The Books of Homilies had a decided influence upon the preaching of Reformation days, for they placed before the clergymen, many of whom had but meagre homiletical training, examples of sermons that were not only good from a literary standpoint, but in which the evangelical truths of the New Testament were set forth. The Prayer Book placed in the hands of the people the Epistles and Gospels in good English translations, and a wealth of devotional material in the collects and prayers. So excellent are these translations that they are found today, wholly or partially, in the service books of all the older non-Roman denominations. Most of them are translations of the old pre-Reformation Latin prayers, but purged of all things that are not Christo-centric.

When the sickly boy-king died in 1553, Protestantism had gained a firm foothold. The Church had been made subordinate to the State in secular matters; the English Church had separated fully from Rome; the monasteries, which had held the title to a considerable portion of the lands of Britain had been suppressed; the Bible was circulating freely among the common people; the teachings of the reformers were being preached in many pulpits; and the people had a purified form of worship, in the vernacular. Three of these things had been accomplished in Henry’s day, and three more during the short reign of Edward VI.

When Edward VI died, the question of succession to the throne caused much bloodshed. Edward’s sister Mary had been declared ineligible because she was a Roman Catholic. Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate, and hence ineligible to rule as queen. Their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, aged 17, was brought in from the country estate of her parents and placed upon the throne much against her will. She was the flower of the Tudor family, and would have made an excellent queen, but Mary Tudor, her cousin, raised an army and marched on London. Hardly had the bells of London pealed for Queen Jane’s accession until they tolled for her death. She reigned but nine days. . . .

During Mary’s reign (1553-1558), Protestantism was suppressed everywhere, and all leaders who resisted her efforts were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Henry VIII, Mary’s father, had executed a number of the ablest men of his time, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, but the record of Mary Tudor was, if anything, even worse in this respect than that of her tyrannical father. Every person of prominence who stood in her way was sent to the headsman’s block. So remorseless was she that when her reign of terror came to a speedy end in 1558, very few religious leaders of any kind were left.

Queen Elizabeth succeeded Bloodthirsty Mary, and she reigned for almost half a century, from 1558 to 1603. She was not eager to support the cause of the Reformation at first, and among her other regulations was an act that suppressed all preaching. The congregations were allowed to assemble and to hear the Epistles and Gospels in English, to recite the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed and the Litany, but any preaching was forbidden under penalty of a large fine and imprisonment.

Perhaps this regulation was a blessing in disguise, for there was a serious shortage of preachers during the early years of the reign of Elizabeth, and of the few who had survived Mary’s brutal regime, not many could preach. Thomas Lever declared: “Many of our parishes have no clergy; and out of the very small number who administer the Sacrament throughout this great country, there is hardly one in a hundred who is both able and willing to preach the Word of God.”

Both before and after Elizabeth came to the throne, a wave of vandalism had swept through the British Isles. It was England’s proud boast that she possessed a larger number of beautiful church buildings than any other country, and if we are to judge by those that remain to this day, in spite of fanaticism, vandalism, wars and restorations, the boast was by no means exaggerated. Old historians assure us that one could travel the length and breadth of the British Isles and never for a moment be beyond the sound of church bells. In the middle of the sixteenth century a wave of fanaticism broke out. Altars were pulled down and carted away to be broken up; stained glass windows were destroyed; elaborate rood screens and other carved objects were torn down and burned; paintings and carvings not only of the saints, but of the Lord and His Apostles, were destroyed; church bells were melted down for old metal; Communion-ware of gold and silver was destroyed and the richly adorned churches were reduced to empty, whitewashed shells. A very few, in remote corners of the land, have survived this wave of fanaticism, and they give us a hint today of the richness of sculpture in wood and stone, and the beauty of stained glass, mural paintings and metal work that was characteristic of every church, no matter how small, when Elizabeth came to the throne. Fanatical clergymen often preached fiery sermons in which everything that was carved or painted was condemned as a graven image. Men who had been unable to condemn sin and point to the Saviour, suddenly found their voices and thundered away against such alleged superstitions as altar crosses, stained glass and chalices of gold and silver. It was a brief episode in the history of preaching, and a thing that demonstrates the power of the occasional outbursts of hysteria that can sweep an entire country. It was felt in Scotland as well as England, and during an absence of John Knox, much havoc was wrought.

In the years that followed, preaching was guided into more useful channels. Elizabeth had decided to pursue a mediating course. She was unwilling to continue her sister Mary’s Roman Catholic policies, neither did she desire to yield to the extreme party in the Protestant Church. Her first step was to cause a law to be enacted which declared that “no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate, spiritual or temporal, shall at any time after the last day of this session of Parliament, use, enjoy or exercise any manner of power, jurisdiction, superiority, authority, preeminence or privilege, spiritual or ecclesiastical, within this realm.” By this act the authority of the Church of Rome was prohibited by law. The Mass was abolished, and the revised Book of Common Prayer was authorized. The ornaments of the church service were ordered to be those in use in Edward VI’s day. The Thirty Nine Articles took the place of the former Forty-two Articles. The appointment of Parker to the archbishopric of Canterbury, and the elevation of Grindal to the London bishopric and John Jewel to Salisbury did much to restore Christian preaching to its rightful place, for Grindal was an able preacher, Parker was friendly to preaching while Jewel was one of the most gifted preachers of his generation, and a warm friend of the German and Swiss reformers. London had an able preacher in the person of Miles Coverdale, who had become a Lutheran as early as 1543-44, and who was pastor of St. Magnus Martyr, London Bridge, from 1563 to 1566. Bernard Gilpin went throughout the North Country preaching with apostolic fervor to large congregations. There were other notable preachers of whom we shall speak presently. However, the Elizabethan Period, so distinguished in the realm of English literature, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser and Bacon, was not a great age of preaching. Elizabeth herself did little to encourage it, and there was a long period of gradual improvement before any preachers of true merit appeared.

In 1603 James VI, who had disgraced the Scottish throne for a number of years, came to London and succeeded Elizabeth as James I. The boastful arrogance, the tyranny and the bungling that had marked his reign in Scotland, were repeated in England. The one event of great importance that took place during his reign was the publication of the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611. It is a curious irony of fate that this most excellent of all Bible translations should bear on its first page a dedication to one of the worst of all kings. James VI was no friend of evangelical Christianity, and he was fanatically opposed to religious freedom. His erratic theory of the “divine right of kings” had caused great suffering in Scotland, and many were imprisoned, executed and banished because of their love of religious liberty. Like Henry VIII, James VI aspired to rule the Church of Scotland and later the English Church. It was against that background of misery and oppression that the King James Version of the Bible appeared, like some gorgeous flower springing up in a foul swamp. It quickly supplanted the translations of Tyndale, Coverdale, the so-called Matthew Bible, the Great Bible and the Bible of Cranmer’s day.