Tuesday, 2 October 2007

No Sunday like it

In 1662 a storm broke. A Parliamentary Act, first passed back in 1549, was resurrected and reconstituted - the Act of Uniformity. It required all ministers in the Church of England give ‘unfeigned assent and consent to everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer, [and] re-ordination for those not episcopally ordained.’ It also demanded a renunciation of the Solemn League and Covenant (a 1643 religious alliance between England and Scotland — accepted by the English Parliament — which guaranteed the maintenance of the reformed Church of Scotland and promised to reform the churches of England and Ireland according to the Scriptures). Knowing that the Puritans would not submit to such terms, the Authorities framed the Act to secure their expulsion.
The Act was ratified by Charles II and every pastor was given an ultimatum requiring him to conform or else be expelled. The deadline was the 24th of August 1662. Thus on that fateful day- 'Black Bartholomew’s Day' — more than 2000 ministers were ejected from their churches for refusing to comply. By this one decree, the vast majority of England’s evangelical preachers were immediately silenced. The action was no sudden whim on the part of the King but a deliberately and carefully contrived plot by the Establishment to rid the land once and for all of the greatest preachers the nation had ever known.
Most of those who refused to comply preached their ‘farewell’ sermon to their congregation on the Sunday before the ‘Great Ejection.’ What a day it must have been. In the 19th Century John Stoughton wrote in his Religion in England Vol 3 (p 267)
‘No Sunday in England ever resembled exactly that which fell on the 17th of August, 1662, one week before the feast of St Bartholomew. There have been "mourning, lamentation, and woe," in particular parish churches when death, persecution, or some other cause has broken pastoral ties, and severed from loving congregations their spiritual guides; but for many hundreds of ministers on the same day to be uttering farewells is an unparalleled circumstance. In after years, Puritan fathers and mothers related to their children the story of assembled crowds, of aisles, standing-places and stairs, filled to suffocation, of people clinging to open windows like swarms of bees, of overflowing throngs in churchyards and streets, of deep silence or stifled sobs, as the flock gazed on the shepherd - "sorrowing most of all that they should see his face no more."
The effect was devastating. It was said that - as a result of the enforcement of the Act - 'religion in the Church of England was almost extinguished and in many of her parishes the lamp of God went out.' Another historian said: ‘After we had cast out so much faith, and zeal, and holiness, after we had in this manner almost cast out the doctrine of Christ crucified from the pale of our church; we had to travel through a century of coldness and dreariness, and barrenness, of Arminianism and Pelagianism, of Arianism and latent Socinianism, all which were found compatible with outward conformity.’
However, the Act of Uniformity did not stop the ejected men from continuing to preach and teach. They began meeting with their congregations in homes and barns or wherever worship could be conducted and the Word of God expounded. This gave rise to the the Conventicle Act (1664). The Conventicle Act forced the congregations into the countryside. They met deep in the woods and began gathering during the night to worship and hear the Scriptures expounded. The Authorities were infuriated, and so, in 1665 passed the Five Mile Act. This forbade and made illegal any religious meetings held by Nonconformist ministers within five miles of any town or village. (This effectively prevented most poor village people - with no means of transport - from attending any form of worship other than in their local Church of England). Moreover, it stated that no Nonconformist preacher or teacher could live within five miles of a town or village and, further, he was debarred from teaching in any school - virtually the only occupation open to a deprived minister in those days. Breach of these Acts could be punishable by a fine, imprisonment, deportation or even death. It was also possible that all one’s belongings could be confiscated. Although these laws could not be strictly enforced, they nevertheless led to appalling persecution and suffering among the Dissenters.
Iain Murray writes
“By almost every method which men knew, an attempt was thus made to shut the mouth of Nonconformists, and for continuing to claim the liberty to speak not a few of the Nonconformists lost their lives ... There could be few more scathing reproofs for modern English Christianity than for us really to attend to the words of these men who gave up livings, homes, liberties, goods and sometimes lives rather than surrender any part of the teaching of the Word of God. Their highest ambition was to be able to say with William Tyndale, “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour, or riches, might be given me.””
Drawn chiefly from some work on Bunyan by John Dunn here.

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