Monday, 21 April 2008

Stoughton's Heroes 02

The feast of St Bartholomew, August 24th, 1662, was the day fixed for the execution of the Act. In anticipating the day, there were some who were mainly anxious about retaining their livings, and were little scrupulous respecting their submission to the conditions imposed. Their consciences had been so exercised already in the matter of conformity, that they had become amazingly supple. Some of these compliant personages had been Prelatists under Charles, Presbyterians under the Parliament, Independents under Cromwell, and were therefore now prepared to take another bend in their ecclesiastical coarse, and become once more zealous Episcopalians, and advocates for the Book of Common Prayer. But others, who had not attained to such marvellous flexibility of mind, took into their grave consideration the newly-enacted terms of conformity. Some men, who had a conscience, did not think that oaths could be so lightly abjured, and their moral obligation so easily annulled, as this new law took for granted; and though quite prepared to swear allegiance to the Crown, they could not go so far as to subscribe to the doctrine of unqualified passive obedience. But subscription to the revised Book of Common Prayer constituted with many the chief difficulty. As to the exact contents of it, some of the ministers could not be informed previously to the time of their being required to give to it their unfeigned assent and consent; inasmuch as it was not issued from the press till a very short time before the 24th of August, and men living in remote parts of the country could not obtain the volume by that day. But, of course, the ministers were acquainted with its contents in general. Baptismal regeneration, the practice of having godfathers and godmothers, using the sign of the cross, kneeling at the Lord's Supper, the belief of a threefold order in the ministry, the burial-service, confirmation, and the reading of the Apocrypha in churches, were all still sanctioned in the Prayer-Book; and these points, which had from the beginning been opposed by the Puritans, remained as strongly objectionable as ever. Exceptions were also taken against several of the canons. Thus far almost all who belonged to the Puritan class were agreed, but the strict Presbyterians and Independents obviously had additional and yet graver objections to the new Establishment.
The parsonages in many parts of England, as the corn was ripening in the summer of 1662, must have been the scenes of some memorable struggles between conscience and care, faith and feeling. Good men were reduced to a sad dilemma. The alternative was not the parish-church or the conventicle, tithe or voluntary contribution, but preaching as a Conformist or silence - a legalized income or beggary. To render the hardship the more severe, the terms of conformity were imposed before Michaelmas, when the payment of the year's tithes would be due, and therefore the ejected ministers would lose a twelvemonth's income. They were men - they were husbands - they were fathers; they had their quiet studies, and they saw their families in comfort - their wives sitting in the snug parlour of the rectory - their children sporting in the garden or over the glebe. To leave these tranquil homes, to exchange them for abject poverty, - here was a trial of faith, more easily talked of than thoroughly realised. It were ridiculous to look on these individuals as obstinate fanatics, - they had heads and hearts, and both were at work in this trying season. They thought deeply on the matter, weighed it carefully, looked at it on all sides, prayed over it, conversed about it. Perhaps the reader sees one of them in his study revolving the whole subject, examining the Prayer-Book, pondering its objectionable sentences, and writing down his reasons for dissent. Perchance a wife and a mother, who is honouring this volume by her perusal, may with all the vividness of a woman's imagination picture to herself the country rector, and the beloved companion of his cares, sitting at eventide by the window, round which the honeysuckle and the rose are entwining their buds and shedding their fragrance, first looking at the garden which she has cultivated with her own hands, and the church peeping above the trees where he has laboured for many a year, and then gazing on
each other with tears as they discuss the point, "We must conform, or leave all this next August." Nor did the ministers neglect to correspond with one another on the question: the sluggish post was anxiously waited for by many a worthy, as he expected from some clerical brother a folio sheet of closely-written answers to a similar amount of matter in the form of query and objection. After mature deliberation the Nonconformist adopted his resolve, sometimes with a solemnity which rendered all subsequent hesitation impossible. A copy of a written resolution by Mr Samuel Birch, of Hampton, Oxfordshire, addressed in the most solemn manner to the Deity, is preserved by Calamy. "I am at thy footstool," says this confessor; "I may not do evil that good may come, - I may not do this great sin against my God and the dictates of my conscience. I therefore surrender myself, my soul, my ministry, my people, my place, my wife and children, and whatsoever else is herein concerned, into thy hand from whom I received them. Lord, have mercy upon me, and assist me for ever to keep faith and a good conscience." One good man braced himself up for the crisis, by preaching to his people for several successive Sabbaths from the words of Paul to the suffering Hebrews: "Ye took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance." Another, who had a wife and 10 children, fortified himself by reflecting on that consolatory passage in our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, where lie bids his followers take no thought for the morrow, and chides their distrust in Providence by an appeal to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field ; and when this excellent individual was asked how he would maintain his large family, he replied, "They must live on the sixth chapter of Matthew."

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