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- The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 20/128 -


Introductory Notices there prefixed to Busher's tract and Murton's by Mr. Edward Bean Underhill.]

From 1616 onwards this Baptist form of the idea of Liberty of Conscience had been slumbering somewhere in the English heart. Even through the dreadful time of the Laudian terrorism it might be possible for research to discover half-stifled expressions of it. Other and less extreme forms of the Toleration idea, however, were making themselves heard. Holland had worked out the speculation, or was working it out, through the struggle of her own Arminians for equal rights with the prevailing Calvinists; and it was the singular honour of that country to have, at all events, been the first in Europe to exhibit something like a practical solution of the problem, by the refuge and freedom of worship it afforded to the religious outcasts of other nations. Then among the so-called Latitudinarian Divines of the Church of England--Hales, Chillingworth, and their associates--there is evidence of the growth, even while their friend Laud was in power, of an idea or sentiment of Toleration which might have made that Prelate pause and wonder. Not, of course, the Baptist idea; but one which might have had a greater chance practically in the then existing conditions of English life. Might there not be a Toleration _with_ an Established or State Church? While it might be the duty of the civil magistrate, or at least a State- convenience, to set up one Church as the Church of the nation, and so to afford to all the subjects the means of instruction in that theology and of participation in that worship which the State thought the best, might not State-interference with religion stop there, and might not those who refused to conform be permitted to hold their conventicles freely outside the Established Church, and to believe and worship in their own way? Some such idea of Toleration, but still with perplexing limitations as to the _amount_ of deviation that should be tolerated, was, I believe, the idea that had dawned on the minds of men like the loveable Hales and the hardy Chillingworth. It is much the sort of Toleration that accredits itself to the average British mind yet. But how greatly the history of the Church of England might have been altered had such a Toleration been then adopted by the Church itself! As it was, it remained the half- uttered _irenicon_ of a few speculative spirits. Nowhere on earth prior to 1640, unless it were in Holland, was Toleration in any effective form whatsoever anything more than the dream of a few poor persecuted sectaries or deep private thinkers. Less even than in the Church of England is there a trace of the idea in the Scottish Presbyterianism that had then re-established itself, or in the English Presbyterianism that longed to establish itself. Scottish Presbyterianism might indeed plead, and it did plead, that it was so satisfactory a system, kept the souls of its subjects in such a strong grip, and yet without needing to resort, except in extreme cases, to any very penal procedure, that wherever _it_ existed Toleration would be unnecessary, inasmuch as there would be preciously little error to tolerate. Personally, I believe, Henderson was as moderate and tolerant a man as any British ecclesiastic of his time. In no Church where he bore rule could there, by possibility, have been any approach to the tetchy repressiveness, or the callous indifference to suffering for the sake of conscience, that characterized the English Church-rule of Laud. But Henderson, though the best of the Presbyterians, was still, _par excellence,_ a Presbyterian; and therefore the Toleration that lay in his disposition had not translated itself into a theoretical principle. As for the English Presbyterians, what _they_ wanted was toleration for themselves, or the liberty of being in the English Church, or in England out of the Church, without conforming; or, if some of them went farther, what _they_ wanted was the substitution of Presbytery for Prelacy as the system established with the right to be intolerant. Finally, even in the New England colonies, where Congregationalism was the rule, there were not only spiritual censures and excommunications of heretics, but whippings, banishments, and other punishments of them, by the civil power. [Footnote: Hallam's account of the rise and progress of the Toleration idea in England (Hist, of Europe, 6th ed. II. 442, &c.) is very unsatisfactory. He actually makes Jeremy Taylor's "Liberty of Prophesying" (1647), the first substantial assertion of Liberty of Conscience in England--an injustice to a score or two of preceding champions of it, and to one or two entire corporate denominations.]

And so we arrive at 1640. Then, immediately after the meeting of the Long Parliament, Toleration rushed into the air. Everywhere the word "Toleration" was heard, and with all varieties of meanings. A certain boom of the general principle runs through Milton's Anti-Episcopal pamphlets, and through other pamphlets on the same side. But this is not all. The principle was expressly argued in certain pamphlets set forth in the interest of the Independents and the Sectaries generally, and it was argued so well that the Presbyterians caught the alarm, foresaw the coming battle between them and the Independents on this subject of Toleration, and declared themselves Anti-Tolerationists by anticipation. It was in May 1641, for example, that Henry Burton published his anonymous pamphlet called _The Protestation Protested_ (Vol. II. 591-2). The main purpose of the pamphlet was to propound Independency in its extreme Brownist form, as refusing any National or State Church whatever; but, on the supposition that this theory was too much in advance of the opinion of the time, and that some National Church must inevitably be set up, a toleration of dissent from that Church was prayed for. "The Parliament now being about a Reformation," wrote Burton, "what government shall be set up in this National Church, the Lord strengthen and direct the Parliament in so great and glorious a work. But let it be what it will, so as still a due respect be paid to those congregations and churches which desire an exemption, and liberty of enjoying Christ's ordinances in such purity as a National Church is not capable of." This is the Toleration principle as it had been transmitted among the Independents generally, or perhaps it is an advance on that. Such as it was, however, Burton's plea for Toleration roused vehement opposition. It was attacked ferociously, as we saw, by an anonymous Episcopal antagonist, believed to be Bishop Hall (Vol. II. p. 593). It was attacked also by Presbyterians, and notably by their champion, Mr. Thomas Edwards, in his maiden pamphlet called "_Reasons against the Independent Government of particular Congregations_" (Vol. II. p. 594). But Edwards did not go unpunished. His pamphlet drew upon him that thrashing from the lady-Brownist, Katharine Chidley, which the reader may remember (Vol. II. p. 595). This brave old lady's idea of Toleration outwent even Burton's, and corresponded more with that absolute idea of Toleration which had been worked out among the Baptists. For example, Edwards having upbraided the Independents with the fact that their Toleration principle had broken down even in their own Paradise of New England, what is Mrs. Chidley's answer? "If they have banished any out of their Patents that were neither disturbers of the peace of the land, nor the worship practised in the land, I am persuaded it was their weakness, and I hope they will never attempt to do the like." Clearly, from whomsoever in 1641 the Parliament and the people of England heard a stinted doctrine of Toleration, they heard the full doctrine from Mrs. Chidley. The Parliament, however, was very slow to be convinced. Petitions of Independent congregations for toleration to themselves were coolly received and neglected; the Presbyterians more and more saw the importance of making Anti-Toleration their rallying dogma; more and more the call to be wary against this insidious notion of Toleration rang through the pulpits of England and Scotland. [Footnote: Hanbury's _Historical Memorials relating to the Independents_, Vol. II. pp. 68-ll7; where ample extracts from the pamphlets mentioned in this paragraph are given. Fletcher gives a good selection of them in his _History of Independency_, Vol. III. Chap. VI.]

The debates in 1643 and 1644 between the five Independent or Dissenting Brethren of the Westminster Assembly and the Presbyterian majority of the Assembly brought on a new stage of the Toleration controversy. A notion which might be scorned or ridiculed while it was lurking in Anabaptist conventicles, or ventilated by a she-Brownist like Mrs. Chidley, or by poor old Mr. Burton of Friday Street, could compel a hearing when maintained by men so respectable as Messrs. Goodwin, Burroughs, Bridge, Simpson, and Nye, whom the Parliament itself had sent into the Assembly. The demand for Toleration which these men addressed to the Parliament in their famous _Apologetical Narration_ of January 1643-4 gave sudden dignity and precision to what till then had been vulgar and vague. It put the question in this form, "What amount of Nonconformity is to be allowed in the new Presbyterian Church which is to be the National Church of England?"; and it distinctly intimated that on the answer to this question it would depend whether the Apologists and their adherents could remain in England or should be driven again into exile. Care must be taken, however, not to credit the Apologists at this period with any notion of absolute or universal Toleration. They were far behind Mrs. Chidley or the old Baptists in their views. They were as yet but learners in the school of Toleration. Indulgence for _themselves_ "in some lesser differences," and perhaps also for some of the more reputable of the other sects in _their_ different "lesser differences," was the sum of their published demand. They too, no less than the Presbyterians, professed disgust at the extravagances of the Sectaries. It was not so much, therefore, the Toleration expressly claimed by the Five Dissenting Brethren for themselves, as the larger Toleration to which it would inevitably lead, that the Presbyterians continued to oppose and denounce. As far as the Five Brethren and other such respectable Dissentients were concerned, the Presbyterians would have stretched a point. They would have made arrangements. They would have patted the Five Dissenting Brethren on the back, and said, "It shall be made easy for _you_; we will yield all the accommodation _you_ can possibly need; only don't call it Toleration." The Dissenting Brethren were honest enough and clear-headed enough not to be content with this personal compliment. Nor, in fact, could the policy have been successful. For there were now champions of the larger Toleration with voices that resounded through the land and were heard over those of the Five Apologists. Precisely that middle of the year 1644 at which we have stopped in our narrative was the time when the principle of absolute Liberty of Conscience was proclaimed, for the benefit of all opinions whatsoever, in tones that could never more be silenced.

About the middle of 1644 there appeared in London at least three pamphlets or books in the same strain. One of these, "_The Compassionate Samaritan unbinding the Conscience_," need be remembered by its name only; but the other two must be associated with their authors. One bore the striking title "_The Bloudy Tenent_ [i. e. _Bloody Tenet] of Persecution for cause of Conscience, discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace_," (pp. 247); the other bore, in its first edition, the simple title, "_M. S. to A.S._," and, in its second edition, in the same year, this fuller title "_A Reply of Two of the Brethren to A.S., &c.; with a Plea for Liberty of Conscience for the Apologists' Church-way, against the Cavils of the said A. S_." Though both were anonymous, the authors were known at the time. The author of the first was that Americanized Welshman, ROGER WILLIAMS, whose strange previous career, from his first arrival in New England in 1631, on to his settlement among the Narraganset Bay Indians in 1638, and his subsequent vagaries of opinion and of action, has already been sketched (Vol. II. 560-563, and 600-602). He had been over in England, it will be remembered, since June 1643, in the capacity of envoy or commissioner from the Rhode Island people, to obtain a charter for erecting Rhode Island and the adjacent Providence Plantation into a distinct and independent colony. He had been going about England a good deal, but had been mostly in London, in the society of the younger Vane, and in frequent contact with other leading men in Parliament and in the Westminster Assembly. The _Bloody Tenent_ was an expression, in printed form, of opinions he had been ventilating frankly enough in conversation, and was intended as a parting-gift to England before his return to America. The title must have at once attracted attention to it and given it an advantage over the other tract. The author of that other tract was our other well-known friend Mr. JOHN GOODWIN, Vicar of St. Stephen's, Coleman Street, whom the Presbyterians had put in their black books as an Arminian, Socinian, and what not (Vol. II. 582-584). Goodwill's piece may have been out first, for it is heard of as in circulation in May 1644, while Williams's book is not heard of, I think, till June or July. But, on all grounds, Williams deserves the


The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 20/128

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